Pig Brother is watching you: smart technology monitoring for animal welfare and human health engineering

An image of pigs to illustrate smart technology monitoring for animal welfare and human health engineering
© iStock/Zoran Kolundzija

Smart technology monitoring can help to overcome the difficulties in assessing animal welfare, and also has human health engineering applications.

Tomás Norton, assistant professor, animal and human health engineering, and Daniel Berckmans, emeritus full professor, animal and human health engineering, KU Leuven discuss how smart technology monitoring can be utilised for animal welfare and human health engineering.

Even to the experienced ear of a farmer or a veterinarian, the din of a pig house can be distracting. From the grunts and feeding of the animals to the hum of the ventilator and feeder and the bump of the pen’s doors, it can be difficult to distinguish exactly what you are hearing.

The difficulty in assessing animal welfare and health

A simple, tell-tale cough by just one animal, signalling the early signs of disease, could be easily missed and of course might not be there when the farmer or veterinarian is entering the compartment.

When it comes to assessing animal welfare and health, we rely on human observation and intuition in the first instance. Yet there is huge potential for emerging smart technology to improve our ability to spot and treat animal illness before it becomes a full-blown outbreak that can cost hundreds and thousands of animals, and completely devastate a farmer’s livelihood.

How smart technology can be used

In the same way that sleep apps and health monitors can help us track our wellbeing, the Internet of Things can also enable the monitoring of animals’ behaviour, diet and movement, helping veterinarians to be more effective in their treatment and farmers to be more productive.

Spotting early signs of illness through continuous livestock monitoring can help keep diseases away from farms and from the food supply, as well as maximising efficiency of feed and other resources.

But most importantly, it can help uphold welfare standards by measuring animals’ vital signs consistently and objectively throughout their entire lives to pick up on the first sign of any change.

Researchers at KU Leuven in Belgium, for example, have developed a microphone and algorithm system using sound monitoring and analysing technology that is able to identify the sound of a pig coughing distinct from all other noises.

The technology, which has its roots in collaborative EU and national research led by the Measure, Model and Manage Bioresponses (M3-BIORES) team can accurately identify pigs’ coughs, which can be a sign of a respiratory infection. When tested against human observation, we also found that the sound recognition system detected disease up to two weeks before a farmer raised the alarm.

As an early warning system, this means farmers and veterinarians can intervene sooner and reduce the animal’s risk of suffering from a serious, prolonged illness and reduce the eventual use of antibiotics. Think of it like a digital version of the daily ward visits by hospital nurses, who pick up on any early symptoms of illness when it is easier to treat.

The connectivity of devices allows the system to be set up to send alerts to farmers and veterinarians either by SMS, through a web-based app or on a digital dashboard, instantly notifying them of a potential underlying health issue.

And in future, the technology could also be connected to a climate controller to adapt the conditions as part of a therapeutic response to a health problem.

But as well as helping farmers and veterinarians to spot early signs of disease, sensors and cameras could also be used to monitor animal welfare against healthy benchmarks like weight, aggression levels and movement.

This offers a cheaper, continuous and more accurate way of monitoring the condition of animals, and can be scaled up to allow large numbers of livestock to be tracked over their entire life cycle. It could, for example, be used to generate data for inspection by regulators.

A camera network in a chicken barn connected to a dashboard for farmers can monitor for problems in feed or water supplies, light problems or climate control, all of which could give rise to health or welfare issues. Meanwhile, sound recognition can also monitor feeding through individual pecking sounds.

Similarly, camera technology can track the individual gait, posture and movement of dairy herds to spot signs of lameness, which include an arched back, a bobbing head or shorter strides.

This inexpensive and non-invasive technology can track the physical contours of cows across an entire herd, serving as an early warning system for lameness and mastitis, an infection that costs UK dairy farmers upwards of £200 million a year, and US dairy farmers up to $2 billion.

Animal and human health engineering

The M3-BIORES team works across both animal and human health simultaneously, often sharing methodologies and results and this kind of health monitoring technology could also be used in patients.

But it is critical that this work is well supported by science; five PhD students worked on the cough recognition system for pigs. This is important to win the trust of farmers to test the benefits of adopting this technology, whereas a recent study found only five per cent of the human wearable sensor market was scientifically validated.

And what all of our innovations have in common is their potential to detect the early signs of a potential health issue and as a result, enable farmers to prevent disease from occurring or from developing into a serious threat.

This is essential not only for the livelihoods and survival of livestock farmers but also for the safety and wellbeing of farm animals, allowing them not only to remain free from disease but to thrive and reach their full potential.

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