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Barking drones used on farms instead of sheep dogs (radionz.co.nz)
103 points by howard941 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

> The latest drone model, the $3500 DJI Mavic Enterprise, can record sounds and play them over a speaker - allowing a dog's bark, or other noises, to be loudly projected across a paddock.

Ok so basically it's just an off-the-shelf drone with a big speaker on top making barking noises. The most clever solutions are the simplest ones :)

In my mind the next logical step would be AI that pilots the drones autonomously, managing location of herds of animals to balance various objectives. I'm not much of a rancher, so I don't know what those would be. But if I had to hazard a guess, rotating where the herd grazes, keeping them safe, bringing them into pens during certain periods.

I remember reading years ago that there was some project to autonomously milk cows. The cows were taught to go into a special milking stall when they were ready to be milked. Each cow was RFID'd and even had their own Twitter handle that was posted to each time the cow was milked.

Modern John Deere machinery all but runs itself. Modern combine harvesters are outfitted with GPS and the person "operating it" is basically sitting in there watching the sportsball or whatever.

It's kinda surreal when you step back and look at the trajectory. It's easy to picture, in the not too distant future, farms that are run entirely autonomously, with only light direct intervention performed remotely from C&C centers in a nice comfy air-conditioned office in downtown Manhattan.

I wonder how much longer it would take before some kind of mass human extinction event doesn't even impact the agriculture ecosystem? I'm imaging this bizarre dystopia where the machines rose up, killed all the humans, and then settled down to produce countless tonnes of animal and vegetable produce in peace. Sure, there's none of those pesky humans around to consume it, but the AI wasn't optimized for that purpose - it just wants to produce as much and as efficiently as possible.

The autonomous milking robots are actually already in wide use for about a decade. There is even already an aftermarket for used milking robots in Europe. As far as I know they first fisinfect and then milk the cows.


> I remember reading years ago that there was some project to autonomously milk cows. The cows were taught to go into a special milking stall when they were ready to be milked. Each cow was RFID'd and even had their own Twitter handle that was posted to each time the cow was milked.


A case of the paperclip maximizer. https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Paperclip_maximizer

> I'm not much of a rancher, so I don't know what those would be.

Rotating pasture, making sure the cattle does not run away, assembling them for vaccination.

Those are things that people can not do reliably on large scale, but surveillance and guide drones coupled with rfid tags can easily. I guess the largest current bottleneck is drone time on the air and maintenance.

It seems like a wheeled or tracked drone would be much simpler and more reliable for herding sheep.

That is definitely not the case, at least not in NZ. This is the kind of terrain you might see:http://woolshed1.blogspot.com/2014/08/new-zealand-agricultur...

If you got up close you'd find land slips, cracks, fallen trees and sheep shit. A wheeled vehicle would need to be at least the size of a quad bike.

I don't think there's anything that moves fast enough yet (over varied terrain).

So like interstellar

Why would anyone choose to live in Manhattan when their job is entirely remote?

Because the rest of their life isn’t entirely remote.

I’m not sure what you mean. New York City is famously regarded as a great city for music, art, museums, theatre, cinema, comedy, architecture, food, nightlife, cultural diversity, and more. I have never heard the sentiment “my NYC job is so great, I just wish it were in another town.”

High rent like pizza said as well as crowdedness, having to choose between transit and driving in really bad traffic, general city complaints. I've used the subways in NYC a few times and I really wouldn't like having to do that all the time. There is some great stuff there like the Museum of Natural History but I think I'd rather live in a surrounding suburb or something, or Hawaii like the other commenter suggested.

On the transit subject, the lack of car reliance is nice in theory, but I honestly found my short experience of taking MTA subways around less enjoyable than driving. Very crowded, jerked so hard when it started moving that I almost fell over, and the walks between connections can be tiring if there's a rush to get there on time or it's a long distance (or both - running from one side of the PABT to the other isn't fun when you're not in great shape)

Rent is too damn high

I was living in NYC, working remotely for a few years when that exact question hit me. A few months later I was in Hawaii.

some ppl like living in the city more than the country.

Even so, I'd think you'd choose a cheaper part of NYC to live in, just considering the rent.

I was already on the fence about replacing humans with robots for e.g. driving, but dogs? Why would anyone want to replace dogs with robots? Worst trade ever.

Just imagine a future where all herding dogs have been replaced by robots.

Dogs that have a built-in need to herd things, no longer having a job.

They would tear the world apart in months burning off their energy.

What did all the horses do when the automobile came along?

They changed job to sticking things together ...

I give it a year before the enemy realized the flying wolf-thing has no teeth. Animals arent stupid when it comes to the predator-prey relationship. It is an old game.

I am not sure that sheep treat a sheep dog like a normal predator any more than a sheep dog treats sheep like normal prey. They are somewhat tame to the dogs and the farmer. A flock chased by an uncontrolled dog is completely different. So maybe sheep will treat drones in the same way.

The sheep dogs protect the flock from predators. Non-violent drones that sound like sheep dogs will eventually be figured out by anything interested in eating the sheep.

And by sheep, surely! The dogs aren't predators, but (I believe) they do sometimes nip the sheep to let them know it's not just barking. The drone is going to need a cattle-prod or something too.

Well, that's basically what I was saying... remind me WHY are we entertaining the idea of replacing our dogs with tazer-drones?

Of all the things we could replace man's best friend with (literally born to do this job), does it really have to be Skynet?

Dogs cost a lot to maintain, think about Vet expense and Food.

Lithium batteries simply need electricity.

How many dogs can you buy for the price of one drone? And what if it rains etc. Etc.

Trained sheep dogs are £2k-5k

Annual costs are around £500-1k

They also require a significant time investment when not working.

Dogs don’t require charging every 20–30 minutes.

Dogs can fly^Wrun without remote control.

The dog's remote control is the whistle. :)

I expect that at some point the utility of the robot/drone will outpace the utility of the dog in this role (and others). Wanting to hang on to our dogs isn't a bad thing, but I don't think we will be able to make as many arguments based on their utility. Instead we'll just have to accept the idea that the reasons for having them (and even working with them) will be cultural/emotional instead, which are perfectly good reasons.

We have an Australian Shepherd as a family pet - they're amazing companions!

And a lithium mine, somewhere.

Just so that everybody is on the same page:


The bar for sheep herding robots is ridiculously high. Border Collies are super smart.

Thank you.

My first thought when reading this was that sheep dogs, the really good ones, don't typically bark. They are very patient and quiet. Barking is likely to send the sheep in the wrong direction.

I owned a working cattle dog once (when I worked on a farm with cattle) and this dog did bark, too much! She wasn't a very good working dog because she'd spook the cattle with the barking.

Ultimately, I'm not convinced a "barking" drone is really going to be very effective.

Obligatory: https://youtu.be/vGOGOxtN2lM

(Welsh herdsmen put lights on sheep and play “pong” on a sloped hillside after dusk with the help of border collies.)

That's incredibly impressive. I knew that sheepdogs were good but that level of control is unreal.

You should check out videos of sheepdog trial finalists. Here's one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdrwm-8c354

Pretty impressive and fun to watch.

As someone who grew upon a (hobby)sheep farm, this seems to miss the point. A good sheep dog is already an autonomous "drone".

How autonomous? Mild example: our collie would frequently herd the sheep into the barn even before we realized the weather was turning.

Extreme example: a Great Pyrenees moved into our farm from a neighboring farm that didn't have any herd animals. The neighbors just gave us the dog after the third time it moved in to our farm.

The drone in the picture has a maximum 27 minute flight time, and requires manually changing batteries, manually launching it. Not exactly something you'd want to sit around doing all day.

Livestock guardians do not necessarily have to be dogs. Three llamas living with a herd of sheep will provide a great deal of defense against coyotes and mountain lions.

There's also a quote in the article about the farmer sitting indoors on a miserable day flying the drone. Firstly, it's unlikely it would be safe to fly in rain and or high wind. Secondly, in most countries it's illegal to fly beyond line of sight without a lot of paperwork (which basically nobody except the military, possibly law enforcement, and some large companies have). You would need to be in the field, watching the drone.

> Livestock guardians

This is New Zealand.

The only thing that eats mammals here (apart from the local humans) is Austrosimulium (australense or ungulatum).

NZ cracked the robot sheepdog back in the 70s https://youtu.be/T1cmPNYb5Ko

I think that was actually using stolen Australian technology.

I really enjoyed watching the aerial video of the sheep and cattle, it was just sooo satisfying. I've been tinkering with ProcessingJS's Flocking visualizations and the similarity is striking: https://processing.org/examples/flocking.html

Good to be pushing the limits etc etc, but is this really at all close to being practical yet?

Just think of the scale of NZ farms vs the DJI range. Unless they can land on remote charging stations dotted about the terrain it's going to run out of power far too quickly to explore much of the farm aside from a brief flyover.

Back of the envelope calc: if an avg NZ farm is 252 hectares [2], and we charitably assume it's square and it's about 6.3km for a trip round the perimeter, yet the DJI flies for 31 minutes at 25kph [1], so roughly 13km, it could only do ~two laps (without stopping and presumably not accounting for cross winds) It gets worse if the farm isn't square (as seems likely in NZ terrain) and it gets much worse when you considering that livestock farms are bigger still than the overall average.

[1] https://www.dji.com/uk/mobile/mavic-2-enterprise/info [2] http://www.environmentguide.org.nz/activities/agriculture/

I think the technology is still useful as it is. I think normally farmers wouldn’t take a sheepdog all the way around the perimeter of a farm like that. Instead they would drive to the part where the sheepdog is needed and do the work there. One would imagine a drone would be useful in this scenario too.

I think the main advantage with the current limited range would be for driving animals (something that wouldn’t routinely require high speed or long distances but might take a long time) and more localised surveys. I can certainly imagine eg taking the quad bike to different parts of the farm and just sending the drone up to look at/round up the sheep.

I don't think they'd try to patrol the entire property on a single battery. More likely just fly out to do a spot check, return to base, swap batteries, etc. If your options are ride a quad bike out there (navigating terrain, fences etc.) or fly straight there and back at 60km/h+ I imagine the drone is a far quicker way to keep an eye on things.

You can keep a Spark in the air almost indefinitely (only landing to swap batteries) with three batteries if you don't mind charging them while they're hot (shortens the battery life a bit) so I'd imagine a Mavic Pro would be able to do as well or better.

And sheep farms can be very steep which would make terrain avoidance more difficult.

Given how loud rotors are of flying quad copters this seems... it seems like this might be not that good.

dogs barking at animals at close range is pretty darn loud. Much of the time the drone is pretty high up, which is relatively quiet at ground level.

Especially in a rural setting, I don't think noise levels would be a big concern. That said, I think like many things, if reducing sound levels is important then over time it will be addressed - seems like it would be a good application of active noise dampening.

> Especially in a rural setting, I don't think noise levels would be a big concern.

Animals are quite sensitive to noise.

that's true.

I heard about this method, but tried only on the advice of a friend…And what can I say...It's really COOL and WORKS! This is a real breakthrough in training and rehabilitating dogs! It helped us solve a lot of the standard problems with our dog and I highly recommend it to everyone! But trust me, the method is worth to buy Check this site, you'll like it: https://tinyurl.com/dogbestbehavior

For history buffs, here’s a robot autonomously collecting ducks in a limited arena in 1998. Was the first autonomous robot sheepdog, I believe. Ducks are slower and cheaper than sheep, and flock very nicely as the video shows.


Looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Here's the 4m news video embedded in the article:


I love the way the sheep look like schools of fish (especially when they are on fast-mo).

Surely sheeps haven't evolved to respond specifically to dogs barking?

Most living sheep probably do know what a dogs bark sounds like, however

Would they respond similarly to a DJI blasting Slayer music?

That would make me move, at least!

I’m not sure. Here’s some evidence that it doesn’t always work for cows:


HAAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAH thank you so much for this, it was exactly what I was looking for... truly the empirical evidence we need.

Needs more shrill screaming and the amplifier needs to be roboticized to run circles around them, of course.

Oh no how could anyone foresee this happening? We don’t UBI for dogs!

Indeed but if it’s anything like other social activist issues there will be far more people worried about the (cuter) animals than the stuff that affects humans.

I know your comment is a joke but, if drones become a thing for herding then we'll just see less sheep dogs bred. This happened with sheep in the US after WW2. Other fibers had been introduced into the market which reduced wool demand.

Sad. I like dogs.


Could you please not post unsubstantive comments to Hacker News?

Poor sheep. They will have nightmares from the high-decibel drone of a drone. Will probably start getting genetic changes in their wool from the stress. Why disturb nature with that buzzing annoyance?

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