In the Australian outback, a cattle ranch called Suppleback Downs is only slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island. Unsurprisingly, it can be hard to keep track of cows in such a massive area. That's where Swagbot, an Australian cowboy robot, comes in: The robot is designed to herd cattle on sprawling ranches that humans can't easily cover on their own.
"Australia has very large cattle stations usually operated by an individual, or a couple, for example," says Salah Sukkarieh, a robotics professor at the University of Sydney.
"One of the big issues that one has is animal welfare," he says. "So building this type of equipment is really about doing two things: One is to help the farmer with daily operations, and two is to look at whether or not we can monitor animal health."
Swagbot can't handle a lasso or play the banjo. But the robot can herd cattle through rugged terrain, and the researchers plan to fit it with temperature and motion sensors that try to detect if an animal is sick or hurt. Other sensors can monitor the landscape to make sure the cows have enough to eat.
One challenge: In its current form, the cattle seem to find the robot scary. In trials, the robot herded the cows successfully, but they looked a little terrified. The researchers are working on adapting the design to help.
"We have noticed that when dealing with dairy cows they are a lot more placid and are fine with the robot, but when dealing with grazing livestock you end up with animals that are scared," Sukkarieh says.
Swagbot still needs more development before it can really be used. The researchers are working on making it more autonomous, so a farmer can tell it to go to a certain location on a ranch, and it can avoid obstacles to make it. The sensor system also needs to be fully developed.
It's not likely to fully replace cowboys anytime soon. "The environment is too dynamic and complex for robots—at least for the present moment—to be able to do all these tasks," he says. "What I see for now, and pretty much for long-term, is how such systems can be used as tools or aids for the farmer or the cowboy."
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