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Rawhide gets taste of the Wi-Fi cowboy

Herding cattle, 802.11b style

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While the corporate world struggles to find a business model that will make Wi-Fi hotspots pay, those agricultural types out in the countryside have been having other ideas. Not for the farmer the delights of high speed Internet access in a soulless coffee joint.

No. In the country, they'll use Wi-Fi to herd cattle.

The suggestion was actually made by roboticist Zack Butler, speaking at the MobiSys conference in Boston. He proposes a system of moving virtual fences, controlled by Wi-Fi, and managed from a single server 'back at the ranch', New Scientist reports.

The virtual fence is actually a set of GPS co-ordinates that would be downloaded to a collar which the cow would wear. If the cow gets too close to the fence co-ordinates, the collar will make a noise, or give the cow an electric shock to scare it away. When the fence moves, Butler says, it will herd the cows with it.

Butler and his colleagues have developed software that will do this, and have built working prototype collars from commonly available components.

The team has already carried out a test of a static version of the fence system, with 10 'volunteer' cows and a square kilometre field. The moving fences have so far only been tested in a group of students. (We reckon this could be a whole new market).

The collar works using a Zaurus PDA, an eTrex GPS unit and a loudspeaker. It has a built in Wi-Fi networking card, and communicates with the controlling server thanks to a 802.11b base station located in the field. Butler suggests that in the real world, these base stations could be located at solar powered watering holes, so that cows could still have their fence co-ordinates updated even if they were frequently out of range of the network.

Unfortunately for the cows, it is likely that if the product ever gets to market the fence boundaries will be communicated to them with a combination of sound and shock. Although the trials have played warning sounds including roaring tigers and hissing snakes, the sound alone doesn't scare them enough to stop them crossing the fence-line. The level of fear among students was not reported. ®

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