Do drones stack up to man's best friend?

Self-driven drones of the future to learn from working dogs

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Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley, a visiting fellow of UNSW Canberra, with Charles Sturt University professor Bruce Allworth, Kelpie Sarge and the Sky Shepherd drone. Photo: Olivia Calver

Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley, a visiting fellow of UNSW Canberra, with Charles Sturt University professor Bruce Allworth, Kelpie Sarge and the Sky Shepherd drone. Photo: Olivia Calver

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Dog's instinct to inform artificial intelligence decision-making in mustering drones.

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It could be argued that working dogs are in more demand than ever before, a Kelpie selling for $35,200 last month.

However, we are also witnessing the rise of automation in the agriculture industry and this week researchers were assessing what role drones could play in mustering sheep.

Trials investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of drones compared to dogs, took place at Charles Sturt University professor Bruce Allworth's Holbrook property, in conjunction with Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley, a visiting fellow of UNSW Canberra.

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The trials will also determine whether mustering with drones instead of dogs improves animal welfare, by reducing sheep's stress levels and increasing predictability and control.

While, data collected on both the sheep and dog's behaviour could help inform artificial intelligence decision-making in the self-driven drones of the future.

In the trials both the dog and drone were tasked with herding a mob of Merino wethers between two points, at times with an obstacle to navigate, like an open gate.

The dog and drone were the best of the best - four-year-old pure-bred Kelpie, Sarge, handled by Wagga Wagga Working Dog Association secretary Simon Hartwich and a drone, named the Sky Shepherd, custom designed and built by UNSW Canberra student Casper Kenworthy.

Dogs and drones mustering sheep

The sheep and kelpie were fitted out with smartphones, monitoring their location and acceleration data. Heart monitors were also fitted to the sheep to help determine their stress levels.

"If there is an increase in heart rate but it's associated with an increase in their acceleration we can say that's normal," Mrs Yaxley said.

"But if there's an increase in heart rate but not in acceleration that could indicate a stress response to the herding agent. That's how we tell if there's improvement in animal welfare."

Mrs Yaxley said initial screening tests conducted in 2019 indicated that mustering with drones could be a less stressful option for sheep.

"In those tests the Dorpers we used responded in a more predictable manner to the drones," Mrs Yaxley said.

"Along with that we also saw lower heart rates depending on what type of behaviour or sounds the drone was making."

UNSW Canberra student Casper Kenworthy starting up the Sky Shepherd, which he designed and built for mustering sheep.

UNSW Canberra student Casper Kenworthy starting up the Sky Shepherd, which he designed and built for mustering sheep.

Prof Allworth said the trials had already shown that drones were effective at mustering, however compared to a dog they may not be as efficient.

"I've been surprised that the drone has been as effective as it has," Prof Allworth said.

"I suspect that with a well controlled dog and drone it would be similar stress levels, but drones are something that could be used and are another tool in the toolbox for producers.

"A couple of times the drone has had to be a bit more forceful as the sheep have wondered what's going on, whereas I think they know what's happening with a dog.

"But as the repeat runs are done the sheep get used to what's happening and respond the way you would expect them to with a dog, motorbike or any other herding agent."

Mrs Yaxley said it had been interesting to see the sheep's behaviour change as they became used to the drone.

"It's not something they've been exposed to before and it doesn't look like anything they've seen before, it's completely artificial and completely new," Mrs Yaxley said.

"There's curiosity there as they work out if it's something to fear or to embrace.

"When they're displaying curiosity we're trying to understand what behaviour this associates with, for example leadership or fellowship in the mob."

Prof Allworth said the trials showed there were plenty of instances where a drone would be handy - for example when you're mustering in a large paddock and need to hold the sheep together while you open the gate.

However, both he and Mrs Yaxley acknowledged that in more complex scenarios, like yard work or creek crossings, 'man's best friend' would be hard to beat.

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