Drones vs. dogs: Stress level study reveals what sheep want

sheep drones

Could using drones to herd sheep actually be better for the animal than traditional methods of shepherding? Researchers in Australia strap on heart rate monitors to sheep to find out…

Many farmers these days use drones to herd sheep. But there haven’t been many insights into how the sheep are interacting with the drone technology or what impact does the technology have on their welfare. And this is exactly what researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra set out to discover.

Interesting video: Jeremy Clarkson successfully herds sheep with a drone, until he doesn’t

Checking sheep stress levels with heart-rate monitors

Heart rate is a generally accepted indicator of stress in sheep. While the resting heart rate of the animal is around 80 beats per minute, when sheep are being vigorously driven, it’s common to see the heart rate go up to around 163 beats per minute on average. However, when alerted to the presence of working dogs, a sheep’s heart rate can skyrocket up to 262 beats per minute as well.

And what about drones? When a loudspeaker-equipped drone initiates a sheep drive with the sound of a dog bark, flying at a height of 10 meters and at a 25 km/h, the heart rate of the animals averages around 164 beats per minute. Meaning, using drones is likely a more ethical way to herd sheep.

As squadron leader Kate Yaxley, a visiting military fellow at UNSW Canberra and one of the lead researchers on the study, explains:

What we found through this study is that the sheep had higher heart rates when they’re being shepherded by traditional means. So, the simple act of moving them to another paddock for food is actually putting the animal under stress.

We measured the variations in their heart rates, and we found it to be much lower when using drones with appropriate approach speed, and that the animals actually responded to the technology. If we played certain sounds that allowed them to use their sensors, their aural and visual acuity, they moved a lot easier.

Read more: Drone timelapse of sheep being herded in Israel is oddly captivating

The research is a part of a longer-term vision to see human and artificial intelligence working together to foster the welfare of farms. And so, Yaxley and her team are now shifting their focus on the frequency of the sounds emitted by a shepherding drone as opposed to trying to emit a particular sound.

Yaxley sums up:

It’s all about promoting a positive relationship between the farmer, the technology that is available to them, and the welfare of the animals. I want to empower farmers to work in different ways, while maintaining social responsibility towards animal welfare and ethics.

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