A local startup business is partnering with researchers at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) to develop technology that will assist ranchers with tracking livestock.

Ag-Con Aerial Corp. was created by a business partnership that included entrepreneur Rob Gunn, a drone enthusiast who wanted to turn his hobby of filming from above into a business.

“After six months to a year, it evolved,” said Gunn. “How could we make money with these things?”

The company began offering aerial land surveying by drone as well as selling drones to ranchers.

“At the tradeshows we hit up last year, it was more of a ‘we just want this to go and look at the crops’,” recalled Gunn of the initial reaction of farmers and ranchers to the drones. “We tried to tell them about the mapping applications and the plant health type stuff that we can do with just a regular camera but they’re not necessarily interested in that.”

Gunn and his partner engineered a plan to track cattle from above but quickly discovered the idea would require the introduction of technology that proved expensive to develop. Undeterred, the company found a willing partner in SAIT and the polytechnic institute’s researchers.

SAIT received federal funding for the project through an engage grant designed to support innovation in small business.

The team created electronic tags that would be fitted to the cattle and detected from a distance of up to 12 metres (roughly 40 feet) and the detector would be fastened to a drone.

“The drone, from a distance where the animal doesn’t even know it’s there, can actually read the tag and identify that animal, identify a group of animals, do a complete inventory scan of a pen or a field in very short order,” explained Glen Kathler, principal investigator of RFID (radio-frequency identification) applications at SAIT Polytechnic.

Many farmers and ranchers, including Cole Giles of Circle J Ranch, are adapting to the introduction of new technology in the industry.

“You’ve got to evolve and stay with the times,” explained Giles. “You have to be one step ahead of everybody.”

According to Kathler, the combination of infrared camera and drone technology will allow ranchers to identify potential health concerns in an animal.

“With our tech, what we’re now going to be able to do with the drone is not only locate an animal that may have a problem but to be able to identify which animal,” “Most likely the practitioner who might need to investigate that is not sitting there with the drone. If we have the identification number, someone with their smart phone would be able to say ‘yeah, this is the cow and this is the problem’.”

While the utilization of drones in agriculture is relatively new, some post-secondary institutions are in the process of introducing the technology into their curriculum.

“We are looking at creating a space out here for quadcopter and drone technology,” said Gordon Gilchrist of Old College, a school that offers agricultural and horticultural management programs. “It’s a technology we have to introduce to students because it will be part of their reality.”

Gilchrist adds the increased availability of current, localized data will be a boon to the industry.

With files from CTV Calgary's Brad MacLeod