High-tech halter tracks horse health 24/7

May 6, 2016 OpenSystems Media

It’s Kentucky Derby week! So let’s talk about horses and specifically how technology can positively impact the well-being of horses. On the NXP Smarter World Tour truck, you can see an Internet of Things (IoT) device that remotely monitors horses, especially overnight when they’re left unattended, primarily so owners can be alerted at the first signs of danger or distress. The device, by Austin-based startup company Protequus, lets horse owners conveniently track their horse’s well-being at all times using an app on their mobile device or via a web dashboard.

This leather smart halter and collar, called Nightwatch, is organized into a neat unobtrusive package you likely wouldn’t even know is there. The device could be thought of as a sophisticated Fitbit for horses, and it also reminds me in some ways of another cool startup – the Whistle Dog health tracker.

The genesis of this product comes from the company’s Founder and CEO, Jeffrey Schab, who owned a horse that passed away during the night. Research told him that equine colic is the leading cause of natural death in horses. According to Schab, there are more than 60,000 equine deaths from colic each year in the US alone. And while a device like Nightwatch may not prevent the unfortunate eventuality in all cases, it could certainly make a dent in that number, and save owners the heartache of losing their loved friend.

Horses are unique when it comes to “companion animals” in that they generally have to fend for themselves in the overnight hours, unlike a dog or cat that sleeps in its owner’s house. Nightwatch lets the owner know what’s happening when they aren’t able to be there, and gives them the opportunity to monitor and respond when the horse may be in danger or distress.

Nightwatch performs continuous real-time monitoring of the horse’s vital signs and behaviors, including activity, posture, and motion. And because the device uses machine learning, it’s adaptive, meaning that the more the animal wears the unit, the more precise it becomes, making it better at catching early signs of danger or distress.

According to the company’s head of engineering “The initial prototyping was done with an Intel architecture, specifically the Edison board, but it became clear that this was not going to be the right path for us. So we switched to a Freescale ARM-based solution, then obviously transitioned to NXP after the two companies merged.”

There are actually two NXP processors on-board, an ultra-low power Kinetis KL17 ARM Cortex-M0+ and a powerful (but still low power) i.MX 6SoloLite ARM Cortex-A9 microprocessor. Eventually they hope to consolidate to one processor when the time is right and when the right mix of memory, processing, and I/O is available. The i.MX processor allows for complex processing to all be done at the point-of-care (within the Nightwatch device on the animal) rather than in the cloud so local connections and alert methods are also possible. It’s powered by three rechargeable Lithium-Polymer prismatic batteries and uses wireless inductive charging which leads to a neat package with no exposed wires or connectors.

Nightwatch monitors the horse’s heart and respiratory rates using an ultra-wideband impulse radar, a technology that’s somewhat analogous to sonar. “The device sends out a signal and we are able to measure the time that it takes for the signal to return,” says Schab. “This lets us measure the physical displacement of the microvasculature in the region behind the horse’s ears so we can pick up a strong and reproducible heart rate. We’re also able to pick up changes in the soft tissue of the upper respiratory tract by measuring those physical changes that correlate with respiration.”

Various sensors are employed to detect behavior, but the on-board accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope is the main system for characterizing behavior. It gives the horse’s absolute and relative orientation at any given time, including whether the horse is standing or lying down, rolling, kicking, etc. Embedded Linux runs as the operating system on the A9 core and is really what allows this level of complex analysis to be possible while still being a battery-powered device. Linux also makes the software easier for advanced communications and allows the device to connect through GSM cellular or over WiFi depending on what’s available at any given time.

Iain Galloway, P.Eng., is Strategic Technical Marketing Manager at NXP. He holds an Electrical Engineering Degree from University of New Brunswick, Canada, and has over 25 years hands on experience as an electronics embedded design and field support engineer. You can connect with Iain on Twitter at @iafgalloway

Iain Galloway, P.Eng., Strategic Technical Marketing Manager at NXP
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