When a sow lies down in its pen on a pig farm, there’s always the possibility that its weight will crush one of its offspring. In fact, this tragic situation affects between 5% and 35% of newborn piglets. If this could be avoided, not only the suffering and death of these small animals would be prevented, but farmers would see an increase in their production capacity.
That is exactly what Abraham Espinoza tries to achieve with the system SmartGuard, a wearable device for the sows. Thanks to its Internet of Things technology and artificial intelligence, this device reduces one third of the deaths caused by crushing. For this advancement, Espinoza has become one of the Innovators under 35 Latin America 2018 of MIT Technology Review.
"When a piglet is being crushed, it emits a particular squeal", Espinoza explains. And that is precisely the signal that SmartGuard works with. To detect and discern the signal from the normal environmental noises of a pig farm, microphones are installed in each of the pens. Then, a machine learning algorithm previously trained to distinguish the particular pattern emitted by a pig in distress begins to monitor the installation. “The system detects crushing squeals with a 90% efficiency," Espinoza states.
If the system detects one of these calls of distress, it recognizes which microphone detected the signal and if the device carried by the sow registered a movement compatible with a change of position. If so, a signal is sent to this device to produce a slight electrical shock for muscle stimulation, similar to the ones used in therapeutic rehabilitation. The goal is that the electric shock causes the mother to change its position and allow the trapped piglet to be released. "The intensity of the impulse has been studied by scientists at the Kansas State University (USA) to ensure that it does not interfere with their well-being," the inventor clarifies.
Despite its high efficiency to detect distress calls from piglets, there are other factors, such as the resistance of the sows to the stimuli, that limit the efficacy of the reduction of deaths. The company is analyzing the data obtained from the pilots done with the first version of the system in several U.S. farms. A second version will be launched in February 2019 with improvements introduced as a result of this analysis to start large-scale commercialization. Large pork producers from the three North American countries have already shown interest in implementing it.
The Dean of Graduate studies at the School of Engineering and Sciences of the Technological Institute of Monterrey (Mexico), Jorge Welti, sees Espinoza’s development as “relevant." This member of the jury of Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2018 considers SmartGuard to be "a real solution to an important problem to improve productivity in pig farms."