SMS in Switzerland: Saving Sheep and Tattling on Cows' Hormones

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 2, 2012

From The News Desk

Text messages get a bad rap. Rather than appreciating the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone in the world no matter where they are, we've spent the last few years debating whether or not it's appropriate to text during dinner, while we're out with friends, or in a movie theater. (Maybe, yes, and no, if you're keeping track.) "Text me" is the new "email me," if email had ever been cool and popular with fourteen-year-old girls, grandmothers, and everyone in between.

Though text messages are most commonly used to communicate with other humans, the text message format (SMS) is actually surprisingly versatile. Twitter is one of the more notable services to repurpose the text message, and other startups, like Txtroo, have shoehorned the format to fit their own needs. Still, both of those services serve relatively frivolous functions. What I'm wondering is, how can text messages be used to help people work, or make life easier for the people that get down-and-dirty every day instead of worrying about which restaurant they should go to or how to express their feelings in 140 characters or less.

Researchers in everyone's favorite cheese-and-neutrality country, Switzerland, are working on the answer to that question. In other words: Farmer Johan is about to go techie.

Swiss researchers are working on a collar that would measure a sheep's heart rate and use that data to detect when a wolf or other predator is nearby, Wired reported earlier this year. The collar can emit some wolf deterrent (no, really) and send the sheep's owner a text message telling them that their livestock is in danger. The three little pigs tried to stump a wolf with straw, wood, and bricks – sheep are about to get the Batman utility belt of collars that automatically sends a distress signal faster than they can say "baa."

The collars were being tested, when Wired published its report, and were expected to be finalized and made available in Switzerland and France in 2013. Cow herders, on the other hand, are already taking advantage of their SMS-enabled future.

The New York Times wrote this morning about "heat detectors" that, when implanted in cows, will send a text message to the farmer when the cow is feeling all hot and heavy. The report says that the cows have been displaying fewer visual cues as to whether or not they're currently in heat, and this tool helps the farmer find the best time to encourage reproduction.

These devices can send text messages in each of Switzerland's most common languages – German, French, and Italian – as well as English and Spanish, according to the Times. Unfortunately, the device is also pricey: A single detector costs the equivalent to $1,400. It isn't surprising that a tool that measures literal heat in a cow's genitals and motion in their necks and then runs this data through an algorithm to determine if the cow is in heat might be a bit expensive, but it does limit the market a bit.

Both tools rely on different technologies to make their magic happen. Without both sensors the "heat detector" (which I continue to put in quotes so as to not be confused with a thermometer) might send a farmer text messages willy-nilly, thus making the product next to useless. And without the wolf repellant, the sheep's collars may as well send a "dinner has been served" message instead of a distress signal.

Still, the fact that researchers have made it possible to learn more about what's happening in the world around us via a simple text message is amazing. And, as companies like Apple, Weixin, or RIM attempt to nix the text message with their own proprietary solutions, SMS' open nature will allow the format – and maybe a few sheep – to stick around a bit longer.