Drones in Precision Ranching—How BeeFree Agro Uses Autonomous Drones and AI-Powered Software to Herd Cattle

BY Zacc Dukowitz
10 December 2020

In the last few years, precision agriculture has gone from being a new, exotic term used to describe farming techniques that leverage drone technology to being fairly commonplace.

Precision ranching is another new practice that, like precision ag, leverages UAVs and AI-powered software to make managing and raising livestock more efficient and less expensive.

Although the idea of precision ranching with drones has been around for several years, most of the drone solutions for it that we’ve heard about have relied on ranchers or researchers retrofitting existing drone technology.

Further, although some of these retrofitted drones have been used to herd livestock, the primary use case has focused more on spotting and tracking animals in a pasture. That is, using the drone as a sophisticated flying camera—not as an actual proxy for a person (or a dog, for that matter) actively herding livestock.

But Israel-based BeeFree Agro may be about to change that.

The company claims to have an end-to-end solution for herding livestock, using drones and proprietary, AI-driven software that it’s created just for this purpose.

We use drones to ensure the troughs are full of water and the fences are up, but we also use them to move the cattle from lot to lot, or to bring them together for medical check-ups.

– Noam Azran, CEO and BeeFree Agro

Watch this video to get an overview of how BeeFree Agro works, and keep reading for more details about its autonomous drone solution.

Israeli cow-herders turn to flying tech

The Journey from Ranching to Drone Technology Company

As Noam Azran—a rancher and the CEO of BeeFree Agro—tells the story, he first started experimenting with using a DJI Mavic in his ranching work in the Galilee Heights, in Israel.

This was back in 2014. At first he and his co-founder Dvir Cohen were only using their drone for surveillance, like many others who practice precision ranching with drones.

But they soon realized that their cows reacted to the drone, and that, with practice, they could make their herd move according to where the drones were positioned.

Photo credit: BeeFree Agro

Over the last six years, Azran has worked to hone this use case, ultimately building a drone solution and supporting software that could autonomously herd cattle.

And now that solution is ready for prime time.

How BeeFree Agro’s Drone Herding System Works

Calling it a click-and-herd solution, BeeFree Agro has developed an app that allows ranchers to choose the pasture where they want to herd and choose the destination (i.e., where they want their livestock herded to), and then the drone will fly overhead and handle the herding on its own.

The company calls its drone ranching solution Joe, after their favorite herding dog, and Joe can autonomously move up to 1,000 head of cattle over large areas of land.

Joe doesn’t require a route to be planned in advance. Instead, the drone can analyze the terrain on the pasture you identify for it, plan the best route for herding the livestock, and then do the herding. (You do have the option of inputting a route if you like, but you don’t have to do this.)

Before activating the drone, you do need to input the parameters of your ranching operation, including pasture(s) locations, fences, gates, water troughs, and natural boundaries, so the drone has the information it needs to do route planning.

Another requirement for using the system is that the rancher needs to stay within three miles of the drone while it’s in operation, presumably to help in case something goes wrong.

But otherwise, the rancher can simply press GO and watch as their livestock gets herded for them.

Photo credit: BeeFree Agro

According to BeeFree Agro, some of the benefits of using an autonomous drone to herd cattle instead of doing it manually include:

  • A 50% reduction of labor expenses for ranching
  • A significant reduction in overall expenses for ranching
  • The ability to more easily rotate the soil and areas of pasture used by livestock, which can improve soil health over time
  • The added benefit for owners and ranch hands of reducing the overall stress and physical labor required for ranching on a daily basis

The last benefit may seem secondary, but given how grueling work in ranching can be, the prospect of extra support is huge.

We went from needing to hire 2 or 3 hands on the ranch to it just being the two of us. We now have more time on our hands to improve the genetics of our herd . . . and we went from working 16, sometimes 18 hours a day to working 10 to 12 hours a day. It has had a huge impact on everything.

– Noam Azran, CEO and BeeFree Agro

Right now it looks like BeeFree Agro is just getting its start, and doesn’t have a significant client base just yet.

We’ll be curious to hear how things go as more ranchers learn about their precision ranching solution and begin to adopt it. The technology seems promising, but until we hear stories of it being used on scale, it’s hard to know whether it will really help transform the lives of ranchers.

Excited about BeeFree Agro’s autonomous drone solution for precision ranching? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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