herding sheep
August 28, 2014

Sheepdog Herding Techniques May One Day Be Applied To Robotics And Crowd Control

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Watching a shepherd and his sheepdog tend to the flock is a thing of beauty. There seems to be an unspoken communication between the two for when and how to gather the sheep. There are even competitions, such as the World Sheepdog Trials in Scotland, to showcase this intimate working relationship. But how do the sheepdogs know what to do? A new study led by Swansea University has found that sheepdogs have just two simple rules they use to round up large herds of sheep.

The research team believes their findings could lead to the development of robots able to gather and herd livestock, the creation of new crowd control techniques, or new methods to improve the environment.

Understanding how sheepdogs are able to get so many unwilling sheep to move in the same direction so well took a combination of GPS technology and backpacks. Dr. Andrew King, NERC fellow at Swansea University, fitted a flock of sheep and a sheepdog with exceptionally accurate backpack GPS devices developed by colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College, London.

The data from the GPS devices and computer modeling allowed Daniel Strömbom of Uppsala University to devise a mathematical shepherding model.

The model showed that sheepdogs most likely use just two simple rules: collect the sheep when they are separated, and drive them forward when they are collected. Using a single shepherd, the model simulation was able to move a flock of more than 100 individuals successfully using these two rules.

"If you watch sheepdogs rounding up sheep, the dog weaves back and forth behind the flock in exactly the way that we see in the model," King said in an NERC statement.

According to The Telegraph, a sheepdog doesn't actually look at the sheep, but at the gaps between them. The weaving motion of the dog is to force the sheep to close up the gaps by presenting them with a "predator,” forcing them to try to move to the center of the herd for protection.

"We had to think about what the dog could see to develop our model. It basically sees white, fluffy things in front of it. If the dog sees gaps between the sheep, or the gaps are getting bigger, the dog needs to bring them together," he explains.

"At every time step in the model, the dog decides if the herd is cohesive enough or not. If not cohesive, it will make it cohesive, but if it's already cohesive the dog will push the herd towards the target," says Strömbom.

"Other models don't appear to be able to herd really big groups – as soon as the number of individuals gets above 50 you start needing multiple shepherds or sheepdogs," he says.

"There are numerous applications for this knowledge, such as crowd control, cleaning up the environment, herding of livestock, keeping animals away from sensitive areas, and collecting or guiding groups of exploring robots," says King.

The question of whether or not the sheepdog can be replaced by automation, however, is not without controversy. Sheepdogs are highly regarded and can sell for as much as $14,000. More than that, they are the farmer's friend.

“It’s complete nonsense,” Jim Easton, a Northumberland sheep farmer and president of the International Sheep Dog Society told The Telegraph, “I’d like to see a robot try and round up a Swaledale sheep that was hiding behind a rock, or get up some of the rocky mountain passes that we have in Britain, or the peat bogs."

“I would tell these researchers to invest their money in something else. Nothing will ever replace the sheep dog."

The results of this study are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.


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