Locating lost cattle on large ranch

I happend to have lunch with a cattle rancher and somehow the topic of flying my Multicopter came up. The rancher immediately  perked up and asked if I could fly and find his cattle. They graze on hundreds of acres and then round them up to move them or send to marked but he currently has a dozen or so missing. So I started thinking about how using a plane they could search for the missing ones. The concerns I have would be.

  1. Could you even identify the cattle from the air in either a video or still pictures and how efficient would it be to have to either look at or watch a video to locate them. 
  2. What altitude do you think you could get decent pictures from to be able to identify cattle easily yet cover the most amount of ground at once?
  3. The gps coordinates would need to be overlaid onto the pictures or video to know where the picture was taken. 
  4. The cattle will go under tree cover during parts of the day so he said early morning or late in the day they would go out and graze in the open so most operations would need to be early in the day or late in the day. 
  5. How fast could you fly or how much area can be covered in say a half hour flight. ( I don't know how long a plane can fly)
  6. This land is in the foothills so terrain can be open flat and in the middle a hill etc so altitude awareness is a must. 
  7. If all of the above things can be sorted out, would this be something a ranch hand employee of his could learn to do reliably to make it worthwhile?

I know we have a bunch of really smart people here so give me your thoughts on this. I fly my Y6 for fun and have a gimbal and gopro but the vast area I have to believe requires a plane due to speed and flight times. Attached is a picture of what some of the terrain looks like. 




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  • I remember reading a magazine article years ago (probably Kitplanes) about some ranchers who used ultralights and very light airplanes... and the occasional light helicopter to save many many cowboy-hours during roundups and checking fence.

    They were able to very effectively drive the cattle from the aircraft using car alarms.

    With decent resolution, I could see most of that being do-able from the ranch-house, and only special circumstances requiring "hands-on" in the field.

  • Hi Greg,

    Actually a IR thermal camera seems ideal for this (really easy to see cows and even easier at night).

    Big problem is IR cameras are way too expensive.

    Except for this $199.00 one - Seek:




    I'm pretty sure that's how I would do it.

    Best Regards,


    • Thanks for the links, I really like the IR camera. 


  • Moderator

    This is a really cool idea -  I want to be a drone cowboy!

  • Take some photos from the air and I can see if Tridge's search algorithm will pick out cows.  I can run the photos through the algorithm for you if you like and send you the thumbnails of what it finds.

    • Thanks that would be great. It will be awhile before I can get out on the land. Maybe about 45 days or so.


  • The technology you require has already been developed and is in use in anti-poaching applications in Africa.

    In Australia we have just had the Outback Challenge where a lost bushwalker is searched for in a 1 by 2 km area, 5km from the airfield. Most successful contestants used on board video recognition with geolocation.



    CanberraUAV.com  (us)



  • 100KM

    Hi Greg

    Some great answers so far. I've been asked by another farmer to do exactly the same, but I elected to use a Skywalker which gives me more than an hour and high speed out to locations. The real time video is only helpful for navigating, it's very hard to make out any animals. However the stills, once downloaded, is a different story. Quite easy to make out the animals. Some pics:


    • 100KM
      Hi Gary, indeed its easy terrain, that's why I took the job :) please, please invite me when conservation drones come again, I'd love hear what their experience are. Many thanks.
    • Moderator

      Very simple countryside that though Hein ;-) IR struggles in the bush as there are many false positives from things like termite mounds that don't cool as quick overnight.

      We radio GPS collar cows and that is fairly expensive but allows other stuff to happen. You can see where they eat in a field, where they like to go and have an alarm trigger when they leave a virtual geo fence.

      We also sensor dams so they can send a text if they are on the way to needing filling or start a pump automatically. I think the 24/7 all weather persistence of a collar and a mesh network making an internet of farm things is going to be big in the future. Sensor cost is plummeting and the data the farmer can use is huge.

      Doing a water system soon that happens over 13km if the chaps forget one of the three pump stages it causes havoc. Takes two days to get the tank at the end of the line filled. They have a motorbike just for the guy checking the line but he sometimes forgets.... TIA

      We had a meetup of conservation drone folks here in KZN last month will do another one early next year I will send an invite if you chaps are interested. I would be interested in seeing that Spotifly finding animals in real time. Maybe we should have a challenge ;-)

      But that's not cows. You can do it but there might be easier ways is my short answer.

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