drone pilot industryHere’s a contest: Dog v Drone

August 2, 2021by helo-10

Now they’re wanting to lower stress in sheep by rounding them up with drones.

The Boss clearly enjoyed reading out the media release to me.

It was headed Dogs and drones: unlocking the benefits of AI mustering…

It turns out UNSW Canberra is partnering with Charles Sturt University on trials at Holbrook to directly compare the stress levels of sheep when being mustered using experienced sheep dogs to that of mustering with a drone.

So how are they going to tell? Sheep don’t like being pushed around by anything much, so comparing a dog’s occasional bark to the pesky whine of a drone is going to be a tricky thing.

Let’s face it, if the drone doesn’t whine or the dog doesn’t nip a leg now and then, sheep are not going to go anywhere they don’t want to go.

So how do they pick the difference in stress levels? Tie a heart monitor to every sheep?

Professor Allworth from the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation seemed to justify this exercise by reminding us that, if sheep are less stressed, they retain condition and health better, meaning higher production. This is obvious to a dog, as well as to a professor. It’s the starting point.

He then offered the next logical step: “If technology can be employed to muster sheep in ways that are less predatory than dogs, we should research why and how.”

“Predatory,” he says? That’s a strong word for mustering sheep. It means “preying upon others” The Boss tells me – but a professor can be colourful and exaggerate, since I am given to that myself periodically.

But back to logical steps. A visiting Military Fellow at UNSW, Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley, then said that drones are increasingly being used in agriculture – not just to check on sheep but to try and round them up.

Now, a Squadron Leader ought to know about things that fly, including these drones. So we’ve gone from less-stressed sheep, to technology-is-good, to something less predatory, thence to drones.

“However,” she said, “the technology hasn’t been specifically designed for mustering and there’s a need for more research to understand the impact of this on the health and welfare of the sheep.”

Which means, to a simple hound like myself, that maybe she doesn’t know that much about drones after all but they thought it would be fun to play with some drones so they workshopped drones-and-sheep to see what might happen.

Squadron Leader Yaxley admitted that one of the potential barriers to the use of drone mustering is the need to have an experienced pilot somewhere nearby controlling the drone – rather than a smart, low-maintenance dog that does it all quicker and cheaper while the farmer gets on with more important work. Hello there!

She hopes that these barriers can be overcome with the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

“This means there is potential for greater autonomy with some of the high-end skills in piloting the drone, and in interpreting if the sheep are responding safely and with low stress,” she said.

The press release concluded: “The team is currently seeking investment from industry and government to further this research.” Sounds to me like a solution in search of a problem. Woof!

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.


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