Australian ranchers are turning to farm robots to manage livestock in the Outback

We may first feel the effects of job automation in factories, but many farms have already begun replacing laborers with robots. For years, Harvest Automation has been building compact robots that transport and organize potted plants, whereas agricultural startup Spread hopes to make fully automated farms a reality in Japan by mid-2017. And then there’s Shrimp, a four-wheeled-machine that helps herd cattle.

Shrimp is pretty simple though, capable of herding smaller groups of 20-150 dairy cows, according to New Scientist, so the robot can’t capably manage medium or large herds, like they have in the Australian outback, where ranches can be so huge that it’s only practical for to monitor livestock a few times a year. In these places, if livestock have a problem, there’s no one near to notice.

This lack of human resources and remarkable expanse of land has lead Australian engineers to develop a farmbot designed to herd and monitor large herds of livestock, while scanning the ground’s color and texture to determine the quality of the pasturelands. The unnamed farmbot’s two-year training begins in June on farms throughout central New Wales.

University of Sydney’s Salah Sukkareih told New Scientist that the farmbot will utilize thermal and vision sensors to identify swings in body temperature and walking patterns in sick or injured animals. Sukkareih previously helped develop a farmbot named Ladybird that could distinguish between crops and weeds, and extract the latter.

Of course, Australia is full of treacherous terrain, so over the next couple years, Sukkarieh and his team will further develop the yet-to-be-named farmbot to better traverse the outback and identify troubled livestock.

Sukkarieh acknowledged that fears of automation make many people suspicious of robots, but he insisted that his team’s machines are filling gaps in the labor market. He told New Scientist, “It’s farmers who are driving this because labour is in short supply and they are looking for technological assistance.”


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