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Forget Precision Agriculture: Drone Herding Is Taking Off




sheep herding by drone

Despite all of the advances in modern agriculture, some things will never change. Tractors will become more like spaceships and crop techniques will make growing things more efficient than ever. But mostly it’ll stay the same. Grizzled men will keep on walking through fields, using whistles, sticks, and dogs to move herds of livestock from one area to another. At least that’s what we thought until very recently. Before we saw videos of drone herding.

Drones on the farm, just not like you’ve seen before

Drones and agriculture go together pretty well: drones are a useful tool for farmers when it comes to mapping fields, assessing crop health from above and distributing pesticides. But’s that pretty much where your average farmer would draw the line.

Luckily, a few farming pioneers have started using their drones to herd animals, including cattle and sheep, from one place to another.

And it makes a lot of sense. Drones are fast, agile, loud and intimidating: the perfect combination of characteristics for a good herder. They can fly while shooting video, too, giving farmers a better view of what’s going on. Maybe they even watch the footage back to improve their herding techniques?

A video surfaced recently of California cattle farmers using drones to guide their herd:

It wasn’t perfect, but you get the idea. There have also been similar videos of farmers using drones to herd sheep and even kangaroos.

Could drones be the autonomous shepherds of the future?

Speaking to the International Business TimesAustralian drone pilot and part-time UAV herder Cameron Parker said that the whole business isn’t as simple as it looks.

Part of the challenge is teaching the cattle not to be too scared of the drone, which takes some time. They need to be trained to react in the right way, not just run off in all different directions.

“Because they’re prey animals, their natural instinct is to run away. So when you first introduce them to this drone you have to do it in a spot where they can’t run away because their natural instinct is to run away,” says Cameron.

Handling animals, he says, is the kind of thing that’s been passed on through families for years. As a career, it couldn’t be further from the high-tech world of UAVs. “The way we handle cattle has been passed down through generations. My children are starting to fly drones now. But the most important thing we are passing on is how to handle cattle properly.”

He even reckons that in the near future, drones will be able to guide cattle on their own, without the need for a human pilot. Autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, and tracking all exist already to an extent. But the idea that a drone could combine all three technologies to herd animals is a bold one.

“We believe this new technology is going to bring more efficiency. As the technology gets better we think we’ll be able to send the drones out to go and get cattle,” said Parker.

Drones certainly have a role to play in agriculture. But the most obvious way that they and livestock could effectively work together is with aerial search and surveillance. Many rural properties and farms have land that extends for miles and miles. Drones fitted with thermal cameras can easily locate animals that wander off or perform regular aerial inspections to prevent the need for more thorough searches in future.

The days of autonomous drone herding are probably in the distant future. But for now, these pioneering farmers are making use of their UAVs, getting the job done and creating some entertaining videos in the process. Keep up the good work!


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