Could this modular 3D-printed “e-collar” bring down the cost of livestock monitoring?

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Researchers at University of Zaragoza, University of California, San Diego, and data consulting company GeoSpatium Laboratory have developed a new, affordable “e-collar” that could significantly reduce the cost of livestock tracking.

Using 3D printing, engineers were able to create a set of interconnected modules that house the antenna electronics needed to relay telemetry and attach them to a portable surveillance band. Compared to traditional collars, the team’s design has proven to be three times lighter, half the thickness and significantly less expensive to produce, while being customizable to each animal’s needs.

“We present a modular collar that distributes electronic components in several compartments, connected and powered by batteries that recharge wirelessly,” explain the researchers in their article. “Its manufacture is based on 3D printing, which facilitates immediacy in adaptation and economic affordability.”

“This system significantly improves the current offer[ing] of telemetry devices for farm animals, thanks to an animal-centered design approach.

A diagram illustrating the main components of the researchers’ telemetry collar. Image via Marta Siguín, Teresa Blanco, Federico Rossano and Roberto Casas.

Modernizing Live Animal Tracking

After decades of agricultural industrialization, many farmers are now turning to telemetry technologies, in an effort to accurately track the daily movements of their animals. Although it began with relatively rudimentary radio telemetry devices in the 1960s, animal keepers have since gradually begun to adopt modern GPS systems as well, due to their improved data capture capabilities.

In particular, the integration of mobile technologies like accelerometers, pressure sensors and cameras into these GPS collars has shown great potential as a way to track migration, foraging behavior and habitat selection of large mammals.

However, according to the researchers, the uneven weight distribution, manufacturing cost and rigid design of many such monitoring devices make them difficult to apply in animal husbandry. To circumvent these drawbacks, the team says they have developed a new customizable 3D-printable alternative, which could lead to advances in “evolutionary, behavioral and veterinary research”.

Various farm animals wearing commercial tracking collars.
Researchers have criticized the design rigidity of commercial collars. Image via Marta Siguín, Teresa Blanco, Federico Rossano and Roberto Casas.

Introducing the Modular “E-Collar”

Dubbed the “electronic collar”, the engineers’ farm animal tracking device consists of a series of electronic compartments, powered by rechargeable batteries and attached to a leather strap. Each of these 3D printed modules includes an ABS cover and body, the interior of the latter being designed with a certain degree of curvature, which can be customized to fit the circumference of a given animal’s neck.

As for the types of electronics housed in their 20 x 30 mm modules, the team decided that two collars of different specifications would be needed: one for intense tracking of small livestock and one for large mammals, but the two would require the same microcontroller, sensors, GNSS module and batteries to operate.

Putting these designs into practice, the researchers eventually built two separate prototypes consisting of seven modules, four of which each contained batteries. Interestingly, both also featured “drop-off” safety systems, designed to break the collar if the animals were trapped, as well as various locking mechanisms, one using a single prong magnetic system and the other double spindle.

In order to assess the effectiveness of their devices, the research team chose to present them to a panel of veterinary experts, who found that their designs allowed for even weight distribution on the strap, making them comfortable to wear. for pets, and the double-pin version to be more effective as it prevents the collar from folding back on itself.

The engineers themselves, meanwhile, concluded that their “design process puts the [animal] the user at the center,” in a way that allows the resulting devices to “collect accurate and reliable data without influencing carrier behaviors.” Going forward, the team says the method behind its electronic collar could therefore serve as a springboard for agricultural innovation, especially given its better price tag.

“The results of this research are of interest to designers and manufacturers of animal telemetry and technologists and professionals in the animal and agricultural sector since they contribute to knowledge of animal monitoring through the design of the device itself, and the methodological approach used to its achievement,” the team concluded in their post.

The lid and the 3D printed base elements of the collar modules.
3D printed flat (a) and curved (b) prototypes of the collar modules. Image via Marta Siguín, Teresa Blanco, Federico Rossano and Roberto Casas.

3D printing in the agricultural sector

These may not be the most high-profile applications, but 3D printing has actually been used by farm workers around the world in recent years to overcome various obstacles related to agriculture and cultivation. In 2019, Norfolk farmer Jonny Leech used 3D printing to build a maize seed metering system that effectively improved the consistency of his crop performance, maize yields in particular.

More recently, engineering company Scheurer Switzerland GmbH worked with students from ETH Zürich to help develop their “Rowesys” robotic weeding system. Featuring several carbon-reinforced performance-enhancing components, the compact weeding robot is designed to serve as an environmentally friendly alternative to the use of herbicides in agriculture.

UK Loughborough University, meanwhile, researchers have found a way to turn polymer waste into low-cost farming tools. Developed as part of their “Circular Plastics Project”, the team’s gear set, from a fruit picker to a fish farming system, is designed for deployment in developing countries, where they could help boost local economies and reduce their accumulation of refuse.

The researchers’ findings are detailed in their paper titled “Modular electronic collar for animal telemetry: an animal-centric design proposal”, which was co-written by Marta Siguín, Teresa Blanco, Federico Rossano and Roberto Casas.

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The featured image shows a schematic of the researchers’ telemetry collar. Image via Marta Siguín, Teresa Blanco, Federico Rossano and Roberto Casas.

Elizabeth J. Harless