Defending the Herd: Utilizing Drones to Combat Cattle Rustling in the Western US

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Agriculture

By Jeff Williams, President of Empire Unmanned

Growing up in the Midwest, I first encountered “cattle rustlers” on the silver screen when my father took me to see The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. The epic fight scene between Wayne and Bruce Dern’s demented character forever cemented my distaste for lawlessness in the world, especially when the coward (played by Dern) shot our hero in the back. The “Duke” was killed in cold blood while the cowboys helplessly mourned their fallen mentor. Although a heavily idealized Hollywood view of the Old West, with the clear divisions of white hats and black hats battling on horseback to control massive herds of cattle, rustling really was an epic problem for the rancher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Brief History of Cattle Rustling

As settlers moved westward during the expansion of the American frontier, cattle ranching emerged as a vital industry, fueling economic growth and settlement across vast, open landscapes. However, the allure of quick profits and the challenges of enforcing law and order in remote territories created fertile ground for the rise of cattle rustling. The romanticized image of the outlaw cowboy perpetuated the notion of the frontier as a lawless land where rugged individualism clashed with societal norms. Just like today, rustling posed a significant threat to the livelihoods of ranchers, resulting in substantial financial losses and undermining confidence in the cattle industry. The only way the rancher could combat rustling was combinations of frontier justice, local sheriffs, posse’s and the rise of Cattle associations and stockmen’s organizations.

A Modern Perspective

Fast forward one hundred years or so and ranchers are still dealing with many of these same issues. Only now, the criminals have technology to assist them in their efforts along with sophisticated surveillance tactics which are sometimes run by organized crime syndicates.  This is not just an issue for ranching families out west as cattle ranching is a cornerstone of the agricultural sector in the United States, contributing billions of dollars annually to the national economy. However, the number of cattle in America has plummeted to its lowest point in decades. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nationwide beef cattle inventory dropped to 28.2 million this year — the lowest level since the 1970s and down 2% from a year ago. Total U.S. cattle and calf inventory dropped to its lowest level since 1951.

Today, during these times of economic uncertainty, rising beef prices and a decrease in supply, the incidents of cattle rustling continue to spike as thieves seek to capitalize on vulnerable ranching operations. They employ a variety of methods and techniques to steal livestock, ranging from cutting fences and hot-wiring gates to using tranquilizer darts or sedatives to immobilize animals. Cattle rustling poses significant financial and emotional hardships for ranchers, resulting in lost income, damage to property, and increased insurance costs. The hardest hit, are of course, small, family run operations. Law enforcement is challenged by the transient nature of the crime and the difficulty of gathering sufficient evidence. Jurisdictional issues can also complicate efforts to combat rustlers, as multiple agencies may be involved in overlapping jurisdictions.

The Role of UAVs in Livestock Protection

So, what is the solution? Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones with their sophisticated payloads can be powerful tools to combat rustling, however they are not a “silver bullet” by themselves. A multi-faceted approach should be considered that involves collaboration between ranchers, law enforcement agencies, governmental officials, and industry stakeholders. Drones should be integrated with existing security measures such as perimeter fencing, motion sensors, and security cameras to create a comprehensive security ecosystem for ranches. By combing drones with ground-based patrols and community watch programs, ranchers can create a layered defense strategy that deters would-be thieves and enhances overall ranch safety. Collaboration with law enforcement and technology providers can further enhance the effectiveness of drone-based security systems, facilitating information sharing and coordinated responses to security threats.

The true advantage of aerial drones is that they can provide near real-time surveillance of large expanses of ranchland, providing ranchers with enhanced situational awareness. Day and Night operations can be achieved that identify potential threats such as trespassers, unauthorized vehicles, or livestock disturbances, allowing for timely intervention and response. In the event of a security breach or suspected cattle theft, drones can be quickly deployed to track the movements of suspects and provide near real-time updates to ranchers and law enforcement. Drones can even pursue suspects as they attempt to flee by providing precise GPS geotagged locational data and tracking them with onboard cameras. All sensor data, high resolution imagery and video can also be used as evidence to document the theft attempts and support legal proceedings.

UAVs- More Value for Ranchers than Just Surveillance

Drones are much more than a surveillance tool for ranchers as they can also be used to conduct aerial surveys of grazing lands, assess livestock health and behavior, and monitor infrastructure such as fences and water sources, aiding in overall ranch management practices. Compared to traditional security systems, drones are cost-effective and efficient. They usually require minimal manpower to cover large land areas in a fraction of the time and cost associated with other surveillance methods. Drones are also scalable and allow ranchers to customize their defenses according to their needs and budget, maximizing the return on investment in technology.

As drone technology can be an expensive investment and the technology is often obsolete after only a few years of use, a highly qualified Drone Service Provider (DSP) should be considered. Effective drone surveillance operations involve highly trained pilots, with FAA licenses (Part 107), who not only understand the ever-changing technology, but also know the tactical considerations for successful operation. Depending on the size of the property, multi-drone operations may be necessary to effectively cover the entire perimeter, high threat areas and grazing lands. This requires much more training and experience than your average drone pilot and is usually best suited for former military or law enforcement pilots.

Keeping Drone Use on Ranches Legal & Ethical

There are also plenty of legal and ethical considerations for drone surveillance on ranches. In the US, the FAA is responsible for regulating drones, imposing restrictions on airspace usage, flight altitudes, and pilot certifications. Ranchers who wish to purchase and operate their own drones must adhere to these regulations and may require a Part 107 Remote Pilot certificate. There are also FAA limits on the distance a drone can fly from its ground station or pilot. To fly further than visual sight (1-3 miles), a special Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) waiver may be needed. Additionally, individual states may impose further restrictions particularly in areas with sensitive wildlife habitats, privacy concerns, or designated no-fly zones. Although most ranches are in remote areas with minimal populations, care must also be taken to respect the rights of neighboring landowners and residents when conducting drone patrols over their property.

As the technology can be very complicated, anti-rustling air operations must consider the many technical limitations and challenges associated with drones. Factors such as battery life, flight range, and payload capacity may restrict the duration and scope of drone patrols, requiring frequent recharging or deployment from multiple launch sites. The weather conditions, visibility, terrain, radio frequency (RF) line of sight (LOS) can all hinder drone operations and raise the risk of a mishap. Drones are also vulnerable to countermeasures used by modern rustlers. Sophisticated thieves may use camouflage, signal jamming devices, or anti-drone technology to disrupt drone operations. Anti-drone systems, including shotguns, rifles, net guns, lasers, and radio frequency (RF) jammers, can neutralize drones and render them ineffective for surveillance purposes.

The Future of Cattle Rustling (and UAVs!)

The future of drone technology for anti-rustling operations and ranch management is rapidly evolving. Drones are becoming much more complicated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to make autonomous decisions and do behavior analysis. AI-powered drones can learn to recognize patterns of behavior associated with cattle rustling, such as unusual movements or vehicle activity, and alert ranchers to potential security threats in real-time. Drone swarming techniques can enable a whole fleet of small drones to work together as a team and synchronize their search patterns, sharing their data to optimize surveillance efficiency and effectiveness. Manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing or 3D-printing are driving drone costs lower and lower, making drones almost disposable and easier to replace broken parts. As battery technology increases, development of long-endurance (2-5 hours) drone platforms will become more common place, making sustained operations more feasible.

Some of the more promising drone technologies involve their payloads. Currently, drones can employ high-resolution imaging, Thermal/IR, multi-spectral sensors and more. Improvements in these sensor capabilities, tied with real-time data processing will further benefit the ranchers’ efforts not only in security but in managing the health of grazing lands and detection of disease in their cattle. As sensors become smaller, lighter, and less costly, smaller drones can utilize these advanced payloads as well. One type of drone system that is becoming more prevalent is the “drone in a box” design. These systems include automated launch and retrieval systems that allow remote operation from a distance. The drone box can be located at an isolated part of the ranch, near historic threat areas and controlled from the ranch homestead or a security office many miles away. The drone could be automatically launched when triggered by other security sensors such as motion sensors. Pre-set, scheduled patrol searches could also be used on a random basis to deter thieves and automatically notify security teams or law enforcement when suspicious activity is detected.

Key Takeaways – UAVs and Fighting Rural Crime

In Conclusion, the utilization of drones in combating cattle rustling represents a significant advancement in the effort to protect livestock and uphold the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. Drones offer a versatile and efficient means of monitoring vast areas of land, detecting suspicious activities, and facilitating timely intervention by law enforcement agencies. However, drones are not without their challenges as it takes a highly qualified flight team to be truly effective. Drone technology is just a tool and without integration with other sensors and collaboration with other security assets, positive results will be limited. With continued innovation and properly managed air operations, drones can be a valuable tool in the ongoing fight against rural crime.