Will Drones be The Sheepdogs of the Future?

Farmers in Australia are under pressure to provide enhanced animal welfare, just as farmers are internationally. This has led to a call for enhancements in technology to improve the way that animals like sheep are cared for.

For example, the use of sheepdogs has come under scrutiny. There is concern about the stress caused to sheep by herding them using dogs. This is perhaps understandable given the effect of dogs on a sheep’s heart rate. The normal resting heart rate of a sheep is around 80 beats per minute. The acceptable instantaneous heart rate in the presence of a sheepdog is considered to be 262 beats per minute. Drones are being investigated as a way of herding sheep without raising their heart rates to such high levels.

Key points

  • Farmers in Australia are under pressure to provide enhanced animal welfare.
  • As a result, the use of sheepdogs has come under scrutiny.
  • The initial results of new research by a team at UNSW Canberra suggest that using unmanned aerial vehicles as sheepdogs may work well.
  • There is still more research to be done. The team is looking at which frequencies of sound are most effective and most beneficial to sheep.

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Use of drones for herding sheep in New Zealand

As discussed on the World Economic Forum, drones are already being used in New Zealand by shepherds like Corey Lambeth. These drones use the sound of dogs barking. Lambeth commented that older cows do not stand up to the drones in the way that they sometimes do to traditional sheepdogs.

Although the concept of drones as sheepdogs is already being explored in practice, the response and stress levels of the sheep involved have not been measured until now.

Research into animal responses and stress

The initial results of new research by a team at UNSW Canberra suggest that using unmanned aerial vehicles as sheepdogs may work well. Researcher RAAF Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley has been recognised for her work into using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in this way. She is a finalist in the prestigious Women in AI awards 2021 for Australia and New Zealand.

The published research findings suggest that using drones (UAVs in military-speak) has a positive impact on the welfare of sheep. When researchers played certain sounds in drones, the heart rates of the sheep being herded were significantly lower than they are during traditional herding.

This is an important finding given that sheep are sentient beings, and their welfare should be at the centre of any new shepherding developments. Using drones as sheepdogs seems to be a way of interacting with sheep while protecting their health and well-being.

What does the future hold?

Using drones for commercial business purposes is nothing new. They are even currently in use on many farms for work such as checking on the welfare of cattle herds and the condition of crops. This new research aims to see if it’s possible to develop a drone specifically designed to make the herding of sheep more animal welfare-friendly.

 

 

Although initial results are positive, there is still more research to be done. The team is looking at which frequencies of sound are most effective and most beneficial to sheep. The project’s final goal is to promote a relationship between farmers, technology, and sheep that is beneficial all round and has animal welfare at its core.

It seems as though the research team is well on the way to making this happen as it continues with its work.

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