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Animal agriculture is a growing field and has only intensified over the past several decades. Large livestock animals, like cows, horses, and bison, are typically managed as large herds and require massive expanses of pasture. While this group-based management has significantly increased productivity, it makes continuous monitoring of animal health and well-being labor-intensive and challenging.

To address this problem, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Virginia Tech have developed a versatile, reliable, and attack-resistant wireless sensor network for smart animal monitoring. The team has received an NSF grant from the Division of Computer and Network Systems, and they are currently demonstrating its operation and practicality on real farms.


Swarun Kumar, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon, will join the research team led by Virginia Tech and share his extensive background in wireless devices.

The team has developed a 5-cm sensor ear tag that can monitor biometrics, acceleration, and location of animals. Powered by solar energy harvesting, the tags will not need to be recharged or replaced. Attached to the animal’s ear, the tag is consistent with existing ear tags used in the industry and will not harm the animal.

Although solutions exist to implement these monitoring technologies in concentrated animal housing facilities, equivalent solutions for pastured animals are not available because of the energy draw associated with transmitting data long distances between animal pastures and the nearest traditionally-connected environment. Popular technologies like WiFi and ZigBee are optimized for use on intensive, barn-based confinement operations and do not translate well to pastoral systems.

This innovative sensor network will leverage low-power, wide-area networking (LP-WAN) to enable animal care personnel to monitor the behavior and health of cattle remotely. LP-WAN devices aim to provide wireless connectivity at extremely low data rates over distances of several miles.

Low-power, wide-area networking devices are extremely versatile and can be adapted to endless fields. I am excited to apply this technology to increase agriculture productivity.

Swarun Kumar, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

The biggest challenge in developing these networks is scale. Building a network where thousands of devices are communicating at the same time will lead to interference and prevent signals from reaching a base station several miles away.

“Our lab is developing the wireless protocols for these devices to efficiently coexist, communicate, and last for years,” says Kumar.

Kumar brings depth to the project, especially in terms of the LP-WAN devices. Carnegie Mellon’s WiTEch Lab, led by Kumar, seeks to develop and apply wireless technologies to improve daily life. Current research projects using LP-WAN technology include sensors to track wild fires, fabric-friendly sensors that respond to human touch, and automotive sensors to monitor tire wear.

“Low-power, wide-area networking devices are extremely versatile and can be adapted to endless fields,” says Kumar. “I am excited to apply this technology to increase agriculture productivity.”

Learn more about Carnegie Mellon’s WiTech Lab