GONE TO THE DOGS

Even sheepdogs aren’t safe: A new robot can herd animals on its own

The possibility that the impending robot revolution could well take most of the jobs away from humanity, leaving us as empty, directionless husks as we search for meaning in a world without toil has been widely discussed and debated. But it looks like it might be worse than we feared: Even our dogs are going to lose their jobs.

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics are working on a new robot that can monitor and herd farm animals, and keep an eye on farmers’ crops, entirely on its own, according to Smithsonian Magazine. They recently put the bot through a series of tests on a farm, including running it over rough terrain and through streams, and herding cows and horses, to see if it could stand up to the task of working on its own on a farm.

The jauntily named SwagBot was designed by the researchers to aid ranchers in some of Australia’s more remote areas, where towns and neighbors can be hours apart, to herd livestock more effectively. The robot looks pretty much like a shoebox on four giant wheels, but it can roam around autonomously, herding animals, keeping them in check, and also help carry things around the farm. (In the video the researchers released, SwagBot is seen lugging what appears to be parts of a tree trunk around in a wagon.)

Some may question SwagBot’s usefulness. After all, we’ve literally bred types of dogs solely for this purpose—sheepdogs and other herding canines have been doing this job faithfully for humans for centuries. But they tend to get tired and sick, especially as they age. They also can’t carry tree stumps around the farm like they’re toothpicks. Working dogs also need to be trained and told when to act: SwagBot can just be sent to the field as needed on its own.

SwagBot can also work with drones to survey a farm’s condition from above and relay information back to the farmers—the drones could also be used, for example, to help the robot figure out the best route for traversing rough terrain by giving it a bird’s eye view of the field. The researchers hope to upgrade the of sensors on the robot so eventually it’ll be able to tell just from looking at animals whether they’re sick or injured, and send a message back to the farmer, according to Smithsonian. Again, quite hard for Lassie to pull off something like that.

This was just the first field test of SwagBot, and the research team plans to continue testing and adapting their robot over the next two years. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to have milk that came from robot-monitored cows, milked by robot milking machines, packaged in a robot-run factory, and delivered by a flying robot. Just as nature intended.

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