Smart cattle trackers a potential world-beater for Kiwi student innovators

August 28, 2022
Microsoft New Zealand News Centre
New Zealand team of tech innovators – (left-right) Nathaniel Faulkner, Tyrel Glass, and Baden Parr.

New Zealand’s Team ProTag reaches Microsoft’s Imagine Cup World Championship finals.

New Zealand, 13 April, 2021 – A New Zealand team of tech innovators has topped a field of challengers from 163 countries to reach Microsoft’s global Imagine Cup finals. Microsoft New Zealand is congratulating the team of three students, Team ProTag, on their innovative smart ear tag for livestock that beat tens of thousands of challengers for a top-four spot at the World Championships in May.

“It’s incredibly exciting for us to see a New Zealand team doing so well at the World Championships, demonstrating the huge amount of talent we have in this country. Local innovation is right up there with the best in the world, and this proves that. What Team ProTag have done also has the potential to help us use resources more efficiently and effectively, protecting animal welfare while also reducing our impact on the planet,” says Russell Craig, National Technology Officer for Microsoft New Zealand.

Baden Parr, Tyrel Glass and Nathaniel Faulkner are recent graduates of Massey University’s Bachelor of Engineering programme specialising in Electronics and Computer engineering and are currently pursuing PhDs at the university’s Auckland campus.  Their journey to the Imagine Cup finals began when a young couple who’d just bought their first farm approached them about inventing a type of cattle management product that matched their values.

“They wanted a smart ear tag for livestock that would enable them to know not just where their cows were, but potentially help them reduce vet bills and improve the welfare of their stock by receiving insights about the health of the herd,” says Baden.

Existing solutions focus either on GPS tracking or on health monitoring. Combining both is a difficult technical challenge. GPS is very power hungry, so the devices can only transmit occasionally, which is not useful for diagnosing problems with the animals. Additional sensors just add to the problem.

The trio’s winning solution was to use embedded machine learning on sensor data to identify important insights about an animal’s condition and only send the streamlined information to the cloud, where it can be further processed to extract insights into the health of the animal. Not sending the full raw data means fewer messages need to be sent, extending battery life and reducing costs for farmers. The team have also leveraged their expertise in localisation (as part of the Massey University Localisation research group led by Associate Professor Fakhrul Alam) to continuously track the position of the animal with only occasional GPS updates, further reducing power consumption.

The solution helps farmers take preventive measures to reduce vet fees, boost productivity and benefit from recording where the animal was prior to an injury or illness.

“If they can trace the history of this cow back and see its behaviour, they can then begin to understand where problems are arising and prevent them,” explains Baden. “It goes well beyond animal fencing, which most products focus on.”

It was perfect timing for notices about Microsoft’s Imagine Cup to appear on campus, seeking bright student innovators to submit clever tech solutions with real-world applications. The group decided to enter as Team ProTag, named for their tech product.

“Winning the Imagine Cup would give us greater credibility, proving the feasibility of our product,” Tyrel says. “It’s something that could open up opportunities down the track.”

Judges across the world selected Team ProTag for the APAC regionals, then the world shortlist of 12, and now the global finale, with Team ProTag winning the Earth category. They’ll now be competing for US$75,000 and a mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella against the winners of the Education, Healthcare and Lifestyle categories. These include developers of an app from Thailand that creates animated sign language captions for videos, a Kenyan post-natal monitoring system for babies and an active learning platform from the US.

Adds Tyrel: “The recent explosion of AI and IoT presents a unique opportunity to rethink the way farming is approached. We can put a small, low-cost ear tag on livestock that provides farmers with the insights they need to manage or even prevent illnesses. It’s an exciting, fast-paced space tackling some of the big sustainability issues we face in feeding a growing global population.”

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