Shep the Drone Proves Able Mechanical Sheepdog

By Steve Anderson April 06, 2015

While we've all heard recently about how robots are about to take our jobs—everything from robot arms to bionic ants are poised to replace the factory worker—there were some jobs that might well have seemed immune to such treatment. Jobs done by animals might well have seemed safe, until a farmer in Ireland discovered that dogs weren't necessary to herd sheep when there was a quadricopter drone named Shep on hand.

Irish farmer and photographer Paul Brennan took some impressive video of Shep in action, using Shep as the means to take said video. Originally, the project began as Brennan was taking photographs of the sheep herd on his brother's farm in Dublin by itself. But Brennan got to wondering if the drone aircraft could do double duty, not only taking pictures and video, but also moving the sheep from one field to another, and so Brennan sent the drone down to sheep-herding altitude.

Essentially, the drone drops down when it needs to interact with the herd, moving it in a direction away from the drone, and when the sheep are moving in the right way, the drone goes back up, away from the sheep. Much in the same way a sheepdog works, the sheep want to get well away from the drone, and so move in the desired direction by placing the drone in a position where the sheep should not be. Thus the sheep flow to the position desired by both the handler and the sheep: where the drone isn't.

Naturally not everyone is as keen on Shep the drone; the National Farmer's Union is reportedly quite concerned about this development, noting that “a good sheepdog is a far better way to go about the job.” Reasons for this distinction, meanwhile, weren't clear, and even the union notes that a drone would have value in things like checking up on animals grazing on common land. Interestingly, Shep is not the first attempt at a sheep-herding drone; videos dating as far back as 2013 show such devices in action, though at last report none of these seem to handle the same number of sheep that Shep tackles.

It's not hard to see where something like this could be valuable, especially on days where farmers would rather not be outside with a dog. It would also be useful on days where a farmer needs to be elsewhere; imagine a farmer out preparing a corn field for planting—or any other crop for that matter—and able to move the sheep from one field to the next just by pulling out a tablet, activating a drone, and sending the drone off to the other field to move the sheep along. People often fail to consider just how large a farm can be, sometimes spread over different fields in a several-mile radius, so having agricultural machines to cover the gap can be valuable.

Only time will tell if the machines catch on in this way, but it's clear that machines have a lot of potential to help or hurt humanity. However, with sheepdogs potentially on the way thanks to drones, the changes aren't without some injury.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

Contributing IoTevolutionworld Writer

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