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Wearable tech for sheep lets woolgrowers join the smart tag revolution

Words: Casey Dunn

The earliest shepherds understood that observing animal behaviour is an essential component of livestock production, improving outcomes for both the animal and paddock. But it can be time and labour consuming, and difficult in remote areas. Fast-forward a few thousand years and AWI is developing smart tags that do the monitoring for you. Following successful on-farm trials, they’re seeking investors to bring the tech to market.

The world’s first smart tag tailor-made for small animals   

AWI’s smart tags use accelerometer, proximity and position data to track sheep movement and activity, and how they interact with one another. Sophisticated algorithms process raw data into information that guides decision-making through a user interface.  

While there are smart tags on the market for the cattle, they’re too big for smaller animals. Other companies are developing smaller versions of big tags. But the key advantage of AWI’s is that it was specifically designed to suit sheep. It’s not just a cattle tag shrunk down. 

As Caroline Diaz, AWI’s Program Manager – Agri-Technology explained, “The cattle industry had options, but nobody was progressing with a smart tag for sheep. So we funded R&D to make it happen.”

AWI set itself three design principles: the tag must be self-sufficient; durable in even the toughest grazing conditions; and low-cost. “Price is key to every decision, said Carolina. “We’re determined to make it cost: benefit competitive so more producers adopt the technology.” 

The result of three years of product development and trials are solar-powered permanent ear tags for lifetime data collection, and battery-powered re-usable collar tags for specific temporary uses such as monitoring lambs prior to weaning. Ear tags can be applied using regular applicators, further keeping costs down.  

The system uses 3G and 4G network connectivity, which Carolina said is working really well. “We haven’t found a single property in the trials where we haven’t been able to establish the connection.”

The tag’s connectivity and durability have been proven in the paddock, with recent trials in Barcaldine, central Queensland, yielding good results. Caroline said, “This was an important trial to test connectivity and robustness in remote areas. We learned a lot and made some refinements. We’re always learning and looking to improve.” 

The small smart tag with big market potential

Purpose built for small animals; proven connectivity in remote areas; and robust in tough conditions – all attributes which set AWI’s smart tag apart. But the potential applications are what will excite producers – and investors. 

Initial development focused on flock management. Carolina explained, “We started with only mothering-up trials, but we quickly realised the tag’s potential so started looking at other behaviours. The value of our tag will be in value-adding for grazing and reproductive management.” These are areas, she added, with real promise for boosting on-farm returns.  

“A research project led by University of Sydney is looking at validating the mounting behaviour of rams at joining. We’ll be able to see which ewe is being mounted and establish lambing dates. It’ll give us joining accuracy, that proximity data alone can’t.”

By monitoring sheep behaviour, researchers hope to give producers a warning before predation or disease events. Trials with Central Queensland University are underway to assess the tag’s capacity to detect health and welfare threats. For an industry which has battled wild dog problems for decades, being forewarned will a game-changer. 

The potential is just as great outside the sheep industry. As a platform technology, the tag can be expanded to other animals, and AWI has already had interest for wildlife use. 

Carolina said, “Our smart tag is just a data collection system. What a user does with the data is up to them. We’ve been working to tailor it to woolgrowers, but investors could focus future R&D on other animals. It’s not limited to just sheep.”

AWI’s investor pitch is as flexible as their product

Given its potential applications, AWI expects a step-by-step implementation based on functionality and progress with relevant research trials. “For just basic location, we could roll that out in a few months.” But more specific functions like reproductive management will need to await the outcomes of research trials – due in 2022. 

The path to commercialisation is straightforward. AWI has secured patents for its technology and has a production line set up in China. They’ve already funded further research on key targets in sheep productivity and profitability, and expect results in 2022.  

Carolina said, “We’ve come such a long way in a short time – doing everything in-house. We’re looking for a partner to help us get it to market and into the hands of producers.” 

That might be a tech company who wants to take over manufacturing and distribution, or investors who see potential for other industries and can fund research to make that crossover happen.

“We want to keep our options open for the right partner.” 

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Find out more about this commercial opportunity here if you’re seeking to partner with AWI for technology development or to collaborate for research.

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Australian Wool Innovation (AWI)

Australian Wool Innovation is a not-for-profit enterprise that conducts research, development and marketing along the worldwide supply chain for Australian …
  • Location

    Australia

  • Organisation type

    Research funding body