Uganda Flying Labs try hand on livestock management using drones

Remember those good old days of our fledgling boyhood lives in rural Africa?

Days filled with youthful exuberance innocence, which we spent flapping like fish in the natural pools, formed on the crooked bends of meandering, rivers as we tended to our parents’ only stake to economic value – their cattle?

The mortal dread that filled us at the end of many a day, when – after getting so carried away and losing all track of time in the pool, or on the sandy patch of the pastures which we called a football pitch and played our home-made plastic ball on – the cattle drifted away from our sight and young callow minds, and disappeared to roam free for a long night.

Because we knew we were dead kids then.

Well; not dead dead. But losing those beasts was a transgression that never went unpunished, and there were only two kinds of punishment then – the switch, or the empty stomach; at least until the cattle were safely back in the pen.

With the kind of days we had – tilling the fields in the morning, then swimming in the pastures until late afternoon when we would take to the soccer field – nobody willingly chose to go to bed hungry.

So we chose the riding crop.

Imagine if in those days we had a Phantom, a Matrice or an eBee to fling into the sky so they would locate the lost cattle for us. How many butts would have been saved from a good hiding then?

Because now, drone technology’s application to agriculture has extended from just analysing crops in fields to inspecting fences – and lately, onto managing livestock.

How we wish we had a drone when we were ten.

And that application to livestock – which was the subject of renowned South Africa based drone professional Louise Jupp’s paper at last year’s DJI Airworks Conference – has arrived in Africa too; in Uganda at least. The Ugandan leg of the Flying Labs network has been working with Makerere University’s (MUK) Department of Veterinary Medicine to develop a proof of concept on livestock management using drones.

Working alongside Prof. Francis Ejobi who teaches veterinary public health at the MUK, the two parties recently went into the field to explore how they could apply their knowledge of drone technology in crop agriculture to mobile livestock, such as cattle.

“MUK has seen the need to use robotic technology and software applications to ease veterinary professionals’ work since they are thinly spread compared to the country’s animals,” read a recent report by Uganda Flying Labs on their foray into livestock monitoring using drones.

“The major area of concern for the veterinary department was people complying with government regulations during animal transportation. For example, overcrowding animals in trucks causes trauma, and so requires monitoring; and mixing different breeds of animals in a single truck could lead to disease outbreaks or other accidents.

“Some of MUK’s other challenges were revenue accountability at the animal auction market, stock inventory, and to an extent, assessing animal health by inspecting farm grasslands. Farmstock inventory was equally important because it gives farmers and agricultural planners a larger view of the veterinary department and beef industry.”

Crucially, the university and the drone organisation also explored areas of livestock management that included cattle farming, herding, monitoring, and farm security.

Drones checking whether cattle were comfortable while in transit. Picture: Uganda Flying Labs

Cattle herding. We know the cattle herding drones meant here were a preserve of proper ranches with thousands of cattle; but it will never hurt to dream of a drone up the skies of your friendly neighbourhood rural pasture, keeping an eye on the herd below while the boys concentrate on the games young boys in the pastures play.

Probably a drone with a hailer on it too, and a recording of a young boy whistling and hurling proper expletives aimed at the leading mischief makers among the herd. Yes, our cattle had names; and as their herders, we knew which ones were the naughtiest. So we tied bells around their neck to get an advance warning each time they tried to creep out of sight. But we digress…

The project took Uganda Flying Labs and their partner to Nakasongola,118km north of Kampala along the Masindi highway, famously known as a cattle corridor, where the team recorded images and videos at Kakira Farm Head Office Zone to ascertain if they could obtain an animal body score.

Some of the animals were spooked at this novel intrusion of course, and the team quickly snapped the recordings they needed before heading off to the animal checkpoint along the Masindi highway to use the drone to evaluate if the law enforcement team and the truck drivers were compliant with the veterinary guidelines.

“To complement police efforts at the checkpoints, we used a drone to follow a truck driving loaded with cattle for two kilometres. Images and videos were captured to examine if the animal’s condition was uncompromised from the point inspection and to assess how the cows were spaced and secured in the truck.”

The field team made further sojourns at Katukiza farm in Wabinyonyi Sub-county and at the Kansirye Livestock Market, where they discovered a hive of activity that needed scrutiny using drones to help the work of local council authorities.

“The drone flew over the auction ground to ascertain how many cows were there and assess the truckloads of cattle heading to other districts or slaughterhouses. The community of cattle keepers and buyers was amazed by the drones flying over the market, so we paused for a demonstration as the crowd surrounded the gracious pilot.”

After that, it was back to base, where the team upload their data into a computer and set to work on the analytics, using a software called Atlas, and aided by artificial intelligence. The analytics process included determining the location of the animals with geotagging points in case they got lost; estimating the number of animals at the market and farms; checking the level of security the animals enjoyed while grazing; and analysing the quality of the farmer’s grazing land to determine if relocating the cattle was necessary.

“With AI and drone use, one thrives in cattle ranching,” the report concluded. “Veterinary experts only need to provide the parameters so that algorithms can be developed to meet the livestock industry’s demands.

“It was a good learning curve as we harnessed the power of technology in animal science. This is just the start of what lies ahead using drones. We see further collaborations with MUK, including using a drone with thermal sensors for disease surveillance or monitoring pregnant animals through birth — possibly even gender profiling for milk production projections.”

Good work, Uganda Flying Labs team. Now we’re off to our childhood pastures again; this time, we are arming ourselves with a drone.


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