Japan turns to wearable gadgets to monitor animals, including pets

by Rintaro Sawano


A 2-year-old horse strapped with a GPS-aided sensor to monitor its speed and heartbeat ran a 1,500-meter lap on a farm in Urakawa, Hokkaido, a town famous for producing racehorses, earlier this year.

Monitoring the animal via PC at Chestnut Farm, Toru Hirose, 53, was intrigued with the young prospect.

“This is interesting,” he said as he reviewed the horse’s data, which showed it had a pulse of 183 beats per minute and an average speed of 47 kph. “This heart rate may be too high at this speed.”

Hirose said a horse’s competitive potential is strong if its pulse stays low even when the animal speeds up.

The monitoring at Chestnut Farm is part of the growing trend of using wearable devices to check the well-being of livestock in Japan.

With moves afoot to even understand the emotions of pets through such devices, the range of uses has gone well beyond their original purpose of allowing people to monitor their fitness or stay in touch via email.

Racehorses can fetch several million dollars in Japan when put up for auction at age 1 or 2. A horse with solid numerical data from wearables will likely ensure a strong bid.

Hirose said he had relied for years on experience and intuition alone to determine a horse’s aptitude for racing.

Now that he has the backing of objective data, “I can make an unequivocal judgment of good or bad based on numbers. It’s as if a whole new world is opening up.”

A dairy farm in Shihoro, also in Hokkaido, has adopted the technology to check the reproductive health of each cow in a herd of around 70.

Masatoshi Furuta, 39, has been using a smartphone app to keep track of the heat cycles and delivery periods of the farm’s livestock. Their birth dates, disease and medication histories and milk quality data can also be stored in the beta version of the application developed by Internet startup Anicall Corp.

When Furuta approached one of the cows, the sensor on it communicated with his smartphone, displaying 0937, its identification number, and Nov. 13, its last delivery date — a key factor in discerning mating time. Cows have fixed heat cycles.

Furuta used to check the conditions of the cows meticulously and collate them later with what had been documented in his office to determine the best timing for breeding.

“I now have access to information immediately,” Furuta said, praising one of the app’s benefits. “This enables people with little experience to manage.”

Apps like this may be a boon for the many dairy farms in Japan facing serious manpower shortages.

Anicall, based in Yokohama, is also engaged in developing a wearable to read the emotions of dogs.

“You can see if a dog tagged with a sensor is happy or unhappy based on an analysis of heartbeat and behavioral patterns,” said company employee Anna Hanawa, 25.

The technology is expected to be made available for commercial use by the end of the year.

“When we make what had been invisible visible through the power of science and technology, we’ll see animals speaking to us,” she said.

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