It may sound more like science fiction than cowboy poetry, but unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, may be the next big thing in cattle management on the BC range.

“Drone technology has real potential as a tool for producers,” says Dr. John Church, who is leading the research at Thompson Rivers University. “It’s a way to extend your vision and bring more information to the producer.”

The drones are equipped with infrared thermography cameras that detect infrared energy emitted from objects and convert it to temperature. The result is an image of temperature distribution that allows ranchers to find cattle on the range, even under tree canopies. Being able to detect differences in body temperature in animals can also be used to find sick animals, and evaluate metabolic efficiency to help select more efficient stock.

“New Zealand and Australia have been using drones for livestock, and it has been used for other animals for conservation work, but I am sure that we are the first to use drones with infrared thermography,” says Church.

One of the first questions that had to be answered was how close you could fly a drone without disturbing the cattle. Flights with local ranchers, and at a feedlot in Saskatchewan found that cattle are very tolerant to the noise and movement of drones, allowing them to fly within a few feet for close observation.

So far, Church and his team have built three drones and have plans to build two more to help evaluate which configurations are better suited to use on the range and in closer quarters like commercial feedlots.

“The next step is to get a drone into the hands of producers,” says Church. “We’ll be getting equipment that producers can use and doing workshops to help them use it.”

Funding: $112,200 through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program under Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. (INN112)