Robots instead of sheep dogs may well sound like a desperate episode of Wallace and Gromit, but that very thing may well be about to happen (the robot sheep dogs that is, not the desperate episode of Yorkshire’s favourite cheese chewers). Apparently, the boffins at Swansea University have cobbled together an algorithm for sheep herding that they reckon can be used to program a droid to round sheep.
See also: Google’s Terrifying Automated Dog
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ’some people have far too much time on their hands’ and ’is this where my nine grand a year tuition fees are going?’. It might sound like a clever little initiative - robots don’t need feeding, they don’t need walking and they don’t leave hard to clean, stinky micro processors all over your carpet. And there’s the relative cost savings (over time) and process efficiencies, too. I don’t think it’ll take C-3PO quite as long as our Shep to shepherd together a few sheep. But how would it work practically?
First off, imagine the wastage. What’s the point in having an overly-expensive, super-efficient, tireless and ludicrously clever robot working 5 minutes a day to effectively gather a bunch of mindless, docile and dopey clumps of wool in a circle. What would it do the rest of the time?
If it was me, I wouldn’t stop at herding. I’d be telling our lamb-rounding terminator to do more than bunch together a few fluffy things. I’d be having it doing the dishes, brushing my teeth and opening jars all day long. Better yet, it can mow the lawn (all 26 acres of it) or change the tire on my tractor or pick me some apples.
Secondly, every farmer I’ve ever met is more opposed to technology than the SBUC are on abortions. Our local farmer, Giles, thinks a smartphone is a reciever that looks good. Farmers tend to be traditional creatures and shoving a shiny technological change in their face will be about as welcomed as a comb at the Bald Olympics.
Thirdly, how much will these droids cost. And how much use will you get out of them? If they’re anything like the planned obsolescence built into today’s tech, you’ll need it’s arms changing every six months, a service every 12 and new cables for every new edition or update.
And lastly, what about our beloved Border Collie? What will we do with that? Some farmers might be lonely people. They might want a bit of companionship. It’ll soon get boring playing fetch with R2D2.
All in all, it’s a good theoretical idea from a few bored people with too much spare brain capacity and probably not enough work on. A drone for sheep rounding may well be more efficient, longer lasting and, indeed, the future, but is it an answer to a huge problem and will it put Shep into retirement?
I doubt it.