Working dogs are synonymous with life on the land, but technology from the sky could soon be moving in on their territory.
- Researchers are monitoring the stress levels of sheep being mustered by a working dog compared with a drone
- Drone developers want to devise manoeuvres that will help farmers muster sheep without using dogs
- Researchers have been surprised by how quickly the sheep have adapted to drone mustering
Researchers from Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Wagga Wagga and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Canberra are testing specialised drones to see if they can replicate the work of farm dogs in mustering sheep.
A small flock of Merino sheep were fitted with heart-rate monitors to gauge their stress levels while being rounded up by a working dog compared with being herded by a drone.
UNSW Canberra visiting military fellow Kate Yaxley said the research team wanted to understand how a flock of sheep moved when being herded by a working dog compared with a purpose-built drone, called a Sky Shepherd.
“There’s definitely a rich body of behaviours that exists within the flock and we can see elements of leadership and followership … so we’re looking at understanding where those points of influence are to help us understand how to train a drone system in the future.”
Drone versus dog
CSU’s Professor Bruce Allworth was also involved in the research and the trial was held on his property near Holbrook in southern NSW.
“We haven’t tried ewes and lambs yet, this is really just the first time the drone has been out on a proper farm, so it’s just a very basic trial at this point.”
Drone developer Casper Kenworthy, from UNSW Canberra, was surprised by how quickly the sheep adapted to drone mustering.
“The next step would be to develop some bespoke manoeuvres for a drone, because currently we just have adopted some sheep dog herding manoeuvres from trials,” Mr Kenworthy said.
For the trial, the sheep were manoeuvred purely by drone without any barking noises.
“Initially we were looking at adding some sounds to it, like some dog barks and some motorbikes, but we have found just the noise of the drone and the presence of it being there has been enough to herd the sheep,” Mr Kenworthy said.
Mr Kenworthy said the drone had proved more effective at stopping the sheep by simply hovering directly over them, whereas a dog would have to go to the front of the flock to stop them.
Are drones a cheaper alternative?
With Australian farmers paying up to $35,000 for a good working dog, mustering sheep with drones could prove to be a cheaper alternative, provided the technology works without causing extra stress to the sheep.
Professor Allworth said measuring the heart rate of the sheep would help researchers determine the least stressful means by which to herd them.
“I suspect that a well-controlled movement of sheep will have similar welfare effects from both a drone and a dog, but a poorly controlled dog might upset sheep a bit and equally if the drone doesn’t control the sheep, they might get upset as well,” he said.
Traditional stockmen like Simon Hartwich might take a bit more convincing to take up the technology.
“I think drones are another tool that farmers can probably use, but I don’t know whether they’ll ever fully replace dogs,” Mr Hartwich said.
Mr Hartwich, from Holbrook, and his four-year-old Kelpie, Sarge, were part of the trial. And the duo proved more efficient than the drone at mustering the sheep on the day.
Don’t let the dogs out, just yet
Researchers are still analysing the heart-rate data of the flock from the trial and are yet to determine if drones or working dogs cause sheep the most stress.
In the meantime, Ms Yaxley will continue to research and refine the way drones can be used on farms.
“A drone just bought of the shelf is not necessarily very easy to pilot, so it’s important to understand what would be required to use it,” she said.
“That’s why it’s so important that we understand what is currently occurring in the system, so that we can plan for the future.”
Professor Allworth, who is also a farmer, agreed drones could become a handy tool on farms.
“We’re trying to get lots of data so we can teach the drone through artificial intelligence to be able to muster sheep, so a farmer … would be able to say, “Go and muster a certain paddock,’ and the drone would go out and position itself properly and bring the sheep in,” he said.
But he is a realist when it comes to challenges in the paddock and says some situations would not be suitable for drones.
“The challenge with drones are things like trees,” he said.
“But just for general mustering, where somebody is going out on their side-by-side vehicle or on the motorbike, taking a drone with them might increase their efficiency.”