Thirteen cows on Alp Funtauna have recently started wearing IoT trackers around their necks. This experiment shows how one of the Grison Alps can benefit from the advantages offered by the Internet of Things.
Text: Ladina Camenisch,
On Alp Funtauna above the Chapella locality in the Upper Engadine, roughly 200 cows are out grazing. They are enjoying the aromatic alpine herbs and pleasant summer weather in the mountains. But the weather isn’t always as friendly as it is today – fog or violent thunderstorms can appear without warning, making it difficult for the two cowherds to keep an eye on the entire herd. That’s why lots of cows on Alp Funtauna wear cow bells; they help to relocate the animals. As of this summer, thirteen of the cows have started wearing trackers on their collars – which makes finding the cows even easier.
Andri Marugg is a farmer in the village of Zuoz who likes to try out new things – which is why he got right on board after an acquaintance suggested tracking his cows using the latest technology. ‘I though the idea sounded interesting,’ remembers Marugg. ‘We’ll have to wait and see if it’s actually effective. I see it as an experiment.’ Marugg has 32 cows on Alp Funtauna, and roughly half of them have been equipped with a tracker since July. The young farmer can always see where his cows are on his mobile phone. The cowherds are also able to track the cows – provided they have mobile phone reception.
But there’s no reception on Alp Funtauna. If you want to make a call, you have to take a ten-minute hike up the mountain. To locate the cows, however, it’s necessary to exchange data over the internet. That’s why Swisscom installed a Low Power Network (LPN) – a network for the Internet of Things – on the mountain. What’s known as a gateway is installed on the mountain where there’s still a mobile connection. The box is smaller than a shoebox and runs on solar energy. It picks up the mobile radio signal and sends out an LPN signal. The cow trackers send a signal to the gateway every hour. The gateway then sends the information over the mobile network to the Swisscom server. From there, the information is sent to the app on a mobile phone.
‘We attached the trackers to the cows’ collars,’ explains Adrian Fuchs, Business Developer for the Internet of Things at Swisscom. They are roughly the size of a packet of pocket tissues and don’t bother the animals. ‘What’s special about LPN technology is that devices with a small battery can send a signal for several years.’ This type of technology is ideal for applications that only send small amounts of data but also need to run for a very long time. While down in his village, all Andri Marugg has to do is look at his mobile to see where his cows are on the map. If the cowherds also want to know where the cows are, they first have to climb up the mountain – until they have mobile phone reception. The Low Power Network makes it possible to transmit data from the trackers, but does not provide mobile phone reception.
Full mobile phone coverage in the Alps – is that even wanted? Andri Marugg is of two minds: ‘I actually like not having reception on the mountain pastures. I look at my mobile phone far too often anyway.’ On the other hand, having good reception in the Alps can also be very helpful. Being able to keep an eye on the weather radar can help when making hay, and mobile communication can also help rescue animals. That was the case once when a cow was calving under the Keschhütte (a mountain lodge). There were complications during the birth. Fortunately, the cowherd was able to communicate with the vet and helicopter via mobile phone, and it wasn’t long before the calf was transported to the pasture in the cabin of the helicopter and the mother cow in the net. The vet then provided medical care there for the cow. ‘Without reception, the mother cow would have died,’ recalls Marugg. Nonetheless, he still doesn’t want technology to take over his mountain.
Andri Marugg can look at the map on his phone to see where his cows are currently located.
The future for cow trackers is not yet clear. ‘We’re going to conduct the experiment all summer and then draw a conclusion,’ says Fuchs. It may well be that Marugg’s sheep will be wearing the trackers in the future instead of his cows. ‘Sheep are a lot jumpier than cows,’ he explains. ‘If they are in danger, they run in every direction and it can be very difficult to find them.’ A wolf recently killed several sheep on a neighbouring mountain. Since then, five animals have gone missing without a trace. Trackers could make locating them easier. ‘I simply see technology as an aid, one that can never replace our skills or experience,’ says Marugg. Although a tracker can locate a cow, it’s not able to see if that cow is sick or injured. Animals also need daily contact with humans to keep them from going wild. ‘In the end, no type of technology can replace the connection between animals and humans.’
The Swisscom Low Power Network is a complementary network based on the open LoRaWAN industry standard LoRa Alliance. It was specially developed for IoT applications that send a small volume of data, and forms part of the foundation for smart cities and energy-efficient buildings. The Swisscom Low Power Network already provides coverage for more than 95% of the Swiss population. It is relatively easy to extend coverage in situations like on Alp Funtauna. Further information
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