Post-grads quack the round-up problem

One man and his dog may never be the same now that post graduate students at Silsoe Research Institute (SRI) have made a Robotic sheep dog.

The team are working to find how interaction with animals can be made less stressful. Recent research shows that animals respond particularly well to machines and find them less threatening than humans and other animals.

The research has led the team to develop an autonomous robot which can enter an arena gather a flock of ducks and manoeuvre them safely to a predetermined goal. This is thought to be a world first – no other robot system controls the behaviour of an animal and no methodology existed for designing one.

The team has not set out to replace the sheep dog but the task is a good example of interaction with animals because of its familiarity and the interesting relationship between dog, shepherd and flocking animals. Ducks are used because it keeps the scale smaller but retains the flocking instinct – ducks are often used to train sheep dogs.

The sheep dog robot (called Rover) was built after simulation work was carried out and comprises a robot vehicle, computer and camera. Images from the camera are analysed by the computer program to find the positions of the flock and robot. Combining this information with its knowledge of the goal position, the control program can decide a path for the robot. Commands are then sent by radio to the robot which guides the ducks to the goal.