What was most surprising about the cows last April in Camden, Australia was that they didn’t seem to care that what could have been a distant cousin to the Mars rover had strolled in from the lab and claimed authority in the paddock like it was the 4th rock from the sun. Apparently without allegiance to the humans who gave two hours a day moving them toward the milk barn or to the dogs who were cow-wranglers by trade, the robot that assumed the herding duties was simply accepted as a regular fixture in the daily routine of foraging, ambling, and evacuating milk.
The cows’ blasé response was the best possible outcome for University of Sydney researchers from both the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the department of Veterinary Science, who had spent months considering how to mod the general purpose bot for interaction with the slow-moving livestock. Rounding up cows to for milking isn’t a particularly difficult chore for farmers, but it occupies an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon during an already jam-packed day. And in Australia, the task is often carried out on a quad bike, which is one of the leading causes of injury on a farm.
Kendra Kerrisk, an associate professor of veterinary science, whose work focuses the future of dairy farming, identified the cow-wrangling as ripe for automation: “In winter, it’s freezing and in summer it’s really hot and dusty. Farmers try to do the milking as quickly as possible and get the cows home faster than they’d go on their own, which is not a good situation.” See, a cow’s impressive 330-degree vision has a blind spot: the terrain just about to be explored with their hoof. Herded too quickly, and missteps could lead to stone bruises and lameness.
A day’s most admired quality, according to a heifer, is predictability. If programed to herd at a slow, consistent pace, thought Kerrisk, a robot could give cows the time they need to change locations, while also freeing up man-hours. So Kerrisk asked the Australian Centre for Field Robotics if they’d help her use their “perception research platform” for a test run.
Although the robot had been in agricultural service before, its previous post was in the orchard, surveying fruit trees to make judgements about ripeness and disease. Apart from getting one of its four wheels stuck in lumpy terrain or misjudging its proximity to a tree trunk (both unlikely), it was pretty low risk work. Working with cows would introduce new challenges.