7 mins read 15 Jan 2021

From farm animals to four-legged friends: CSIRO and Ceres Tag develop a smart collar for pets

CSIRO has announced that it will be continuing its collaboration with Australian startup, Ceres Tag, to develop a prototype smart collar for household pets.

Space applications such as IoT technology will be useful to humans and their best friends. Credit: Unsplash

The collar and its origins

Announced in November 2020, the Companion Collar is the latest in an ongoing collaboration between CSIRO and Ceres Tag. It is designed to track and monitor the location of household pets. To understand how these smart collars came to be, we first need to appreciate the collaborative work that led to it.

The partnership between CSIRO and Ceres Tag dates back to 2018, when CSIRO announced it had started work with Ceres Tag to develop a new ear tag to monitor livestock on Australian farms. The tags would allow farmers to geo-locate their animals, including sheep and cattle, across large areas of farmland by transmitting location data directly to satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

As such, the tags are a product of the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, which is a network of wirelessly connected devices which provide useful information to an end-user. It is predicted to be a game-changer in the way we monitor, survey and track things in our daily lives as well as in industry.

The smart ear tag technology would eliminate the need to construct ground stations near the farms, but more importantly, it would save farmers countless hours and costs in locating and monitoring livestock, thereby enabling more efficient and effective asset management.

And it’s not just an idea in the works: Canadian cattle producers are already trialling the ear tag. “Ceres Tag is years ahead of anybody else,” says Heather Mundt, who runs a cow-calf operation and grain farm with her husband Brenton in Oyen, Alberta.

On the sheer cost savings that the smart ear tag offers, her husband Brenton adds, “We’re spread out over 55 miles and seven different pastures, so for us to go check our cattle is pretty much a six- to eight-hour project. If we could have constant awareness of where our cattle are, then that would save a lot of trips.”

Now, the tagging technology is being brought from the paddock to the home.

A cow wearing a Ceres smart ear tag. The tag will allow tracking of the cow during its lifetime. Credit: CSIRO

How the Companion Collar works

The prototype Collar boasts similar IoT technology to the ear tags. In addition, the use of Bluetooth communications indicate that the pet is still within the vicinity of the home, during which the Collar would go into battery-save mode. As a result of this feature, the Collar would only need to be charged about once a month, as opposed to once a week for many location-tracking devices currently available (which include smartwatches for humans!). Importantly, the collar would automatically switch to satellite communications whenever the collar ventured outside of the home network, thus acting like a GPS device.

A Fitbit for pets

For humans who bought their first smartwatch (i.e. an all-in-one pedometer, GPS, activity monitor and sleep tracker) when they first gained popularity way back in the 2010s, the Companion Collar of 2020 probably sounds familiar.

In addition to location tracking, the Collar would behave as a Fitbit for pets, monitoring its movements and displaying the data on their owner’s smartphone app. Using machine learning, the app may use the data to make reports and predictions about the animal’s behaviour and health.

“Owners will get valuable insights into how their pet has behaved throughout the day, with the system identifying if the animal’s activity is above or below its typical levels”, proposes Dr Phil Valencia, Senior Research Engineer at Data61, the digital specialist arm of CSIRO.

Because of its constant connectivity, it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate what these collars could eventually be used for. We may start to see owners monitoring their four-legged friends from beyond their immediate neighbourhood. For example, because of the nature of IoT technology, the collar would allow lost dogs to be more easily found via the smartphone app.

And when vacations become possible again, pet sitters and pet hotels may eventually embrace the Companion Collar technology, using the smartphone app on their own devices to monitor pets for their owners’ peace of mind. Furthermore, with enough widespread use, data on pets’ movements could be collected for social and scientific research. 

Lewis Frost, the Chief Operating Officer of Ceres Tag, says that the collar turns a new page in the area of personalised pet treatment and welfare, much like how ‘precision health’ is gaining momentum in the healthcare industry. “Ceres is leveraging all its learnings from livestock smart tag development to create a superior product in the companion animal market,” Mr Frost says.

Of course, as with all science, little is possible without funding assistance. Reminiscent of the Australian Space Agency’s provision of funding for small space companies, the Companion Collar project is backed by CSIRO’s Kick-Start program. This program provides funding, support and expertise for those Australian startups and small SMEs, like Ceres Tag, which present CSIRO with a bright idea.

The Companion Collar prototype, pictured, is designed to fit nearly on a regular pet collar. Credit: CSIRO

CSIRO's impact

Most readers will have heard of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) as Australia’s national science agency. Officially formed in 1916, its original name was The Advisory Council of Science and Industry, only changing its name to CSIRO in 1949 after research funding and efforts were significantly increased. Its headquarters are in Canberra and it maintains more than fifty sites across the world, not only in Australia but also in the United States, France and Chile.

Data61, one of CSIRO’s research units (or areas of ‘Impact Science’), is aptly described as ‘Australia’s leading digital research network’ in a world in which data is the ‘basic currency of this new world’. It is under this arm of CSIRO that the Companion Collar is being developed.

The new kid: Ceres Tag

Ceres Tag is an exciting new startup taking advantage of the increasingly versatile technology of IoT. Founded in 2016 by engineer and ex-farmhand David Smith, Ceres Tag claims to be ‘the world’s first direct-to-satellite animal information platform’. Among many achievements, it has developed the world’s only direct-to-satellite ear tag for livestock which is currently aspiring to meet the NLIS (National Livestock Identification System) tag requirements. These ear tags can monitor for important factors like theft detection, and can even alert farmers as to when an animal is giving birth. For the agriculture industry, companies like Ceres Tag are rapidly revolutionising the way that farmers manage livestock and land (of which Australia has a lot). 

The company’s name has a fascinating origin: Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility. Ceres is also the name of the largest object in the Asteroid Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

David Smith, CEO of Ceres Tag, holds the smart ear tag that his company developed. Credit: CSIRO

The intersection of many technologies

The Companion Collar is an excellent example of how multiple emerging technologies can work together to create a revolutionary new product for the end-user: Ceres Tag, supported by CSIRO, has used its expertise in digital agriculture to develop a wearable smart device that connects directly to a satellite in orbit via an IoT network.

While such wearable devices have been (and are still being) enhanced and upgraded for our health and wellbeing, it’s clear that pets can start to adopt these accessories too.

After all, why should humans have all the fun?