Farmers in New Zealand are using drones for livestock herding and monitoring, roles which have traditionally been filled by dogs, according to a report from Radio New Zealand via the Washington Post.
Central to the drone’s capacity for herding is the ability of one popular model to record and play back sounds over a loud speaker. Using the popular DJI Mavic Enterprise drone, farmers have been recording the sound of barking dogs, and playing the recordings to herd sheep and cattle. The drone costs about $3,500.
The robotic herders have advantages over the dogs, but also several drawbacks that farmers say will ensure dogs retain a role on the farms for the foreseeable future.
Corey Lambeth, a shepherd, said to RNZ that the drones are faster at herding animals, and even cause less stress, than the dogs. They also don’t encounter as much resistance from the animals, he says:
“That’s the one thing I’ve noticed when you’re moving cows and calves that the old cows stand up to the dogs, but with the drones, they’ve never done that.”
Farmers are also using the drones to monitor their farms and the condition of their livestock, tracking their health, water, and feed supply from afar, without stressing the animals with the presence of humans.
Another farmer, Jason Rentoul, told RNZ that a single drone can accomplish what would normally be two-hours of herding work, requiring two people and two dog teams. They’re especially useful, he says, on the hilly terrain that’s common in New Zealand, boosting visibility and saving him the hard and time-consuming work of climbing the hills.
He also says the dogs are learning to regard the drones as partners in their herding efforts, rather than as a threat or a target. This allows them to coordinate with their robotic partners.
“A good herding dog, he’s already figured out if the drones are working on that side, I’ll go over here and work over here,” Rentoul said.
However, the drones still have some substantial drawbacks compared to the canine herders. The dogs are able to work in bad weather, don’t require charging, and have a longer lifespan than the drones.
According to Lambeth:
“There’s definitely going to be places for dogs always on farm.”
In recent years, drones have found many other roles in agriculture, offering farmers new, efficient options for planting, spraying, irrigation, and monitoring crops for diseases.