Could “sky shepherd” drones herd sheep better than working dogs?

Working dogs are synonymous with life on earth, but technology from above could soon take hold of their territory.

Researchers from Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Wagga Wagga and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Canberra are testing specialist drones to see if they can replicate the work of farm dogs by gathering sheep.

A small flock of Merino sheep were fitted with heart rate monitors to assess their stress levels while being herded by a working dog from a drone.

Fellow military member visiting UNSW Canberra, Kate Yaxley, said the research team wanted to understand how a flock of sheep moved when guarded by a working dog compared to a specially designed drone, called Sky. Shepherd.

Heart rate monitors are fitted to the sheep to compare their stress levels when herded by a dog and by a drone.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

“There is certainly a rich set of behaviors within the herd and we can see elements of leadership and following…so we are looking to understand where those points of influence are to help us understand how to train a drone system to the future. “

The red and black drone is sitting on the green grass
This specially built drone was adapted to round up the sheep during the trial.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

Drone versus dog

CSU Professor Bruce Allworth was also involved in the search and the trial took place on his property near Holbrook in southern New South Wales.

Brown dog lies down next to a flock of sheep in a pen with green grass
Four-year-old Kelpie Sarge rounding up sheep on a farm near Holbrook, NSW.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

“We haven’t tried ewes and lambs yet, this is really the first time the drone has been out on a proper farm, so it’s just a very basic trial at this stage.”

Drone developer Casper Kenworthy, from UNSW Canberra, was surprised at how quickly the sheep adapted to drone herding.

“The next step would be to develop bespoke maneuvers for a drone, because right now we’ve just adopted some sheepdog herding maneuvers from trials,” Kenworthy said.

Man wearing a cap and kneeling, inspecting a red and black drone
Drone developer Casper Kenworthy prepares to round up sheep for trial.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

For the trial, the sheep were maneuvered solely by drone without any barking noise.

“We originally considered adding sounds to it, like barking dogs and motorbikes, but we only found the noise from the drone and its presence was enough to herd the sheep,” Mr Kenworthy said.

Flock of sheep in a pen, red and black drone hovering above them
Researchers are trying to determine if drones can be more useful to farmers. (ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

Mr Kenworthy said the drone had proven more effective at stopping sheep by simply hovering over them, when a dog would have to go in front of the flock to stop them.

Are drones a cheaper alternative?

With Australian farmers paying up to $35,000 for a good working dog, herding sheep with drones could prove a cheaper alternative, provided the technology works without causing additional stress to the sheep.

Professor Allworth said measuring the sheep’s heart rate would help researchers determine the least stressful ways to round them up.

Man in striped sweater wearing wide-brimmed hat smiling and leaning on iron gate
Professor Bruce Allworth, of the Graham Center at Wagga Wagga, held the trial on his property in Holbrook, NSW. (ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

“I suspect that a well-controlled movement of sheep will have similar effects on the welfare of a drone and a dog, but a poorly controlled dog can upset the sheep a bit and the same if the drone is not controlling the sheep, they might get upset too,” he said.

Traditional breeders like Simon Hartwich might be a little more compelling to embrace the technology.

“I think drones are another tool farmers can probably use, but I don’t know if they’ll completely replace dogs,” Hartwich said.

Man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, kneeling, fits a black plastic monitor around a brown dog's neck.
Holbrook breeder Simon Hartwich and his four-year-old Kelpie, Sarge, during the trial.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

Mr Hartwich, from Holbrook, and his four-year-old Kelpie, Sarge, were part of the trial. And the duo proved to be more effective than the drone in rounding up the day’s sheep.

Brown dog standing on green grass
Sarge in control, but for how long?(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

Don’t let the dogs out, just yet

Researchers are still analyzing heart rate data from the trial flock and have yet to determine whether drones or working dogs are causing the sheep more stress.

In the meantime, Ms Yaxley will continue to research and refine how drones can be used on farms.

“A drone that’s just bought off the shelf isn’t necessarily very easy to fly, so it’s important to understand what would be needed to use it,” she said.

Woman in navy blue sweater and mask, with yellow plastic containers on a bench
University of New South Wales visiting military member Kate Yaxley analyzes data from a wool shed as part of the research.(ABC Riverina: Cara Jeffery)

“That’s why it’s so important that we understand what’s going on in the system right now, so we can plan for the future.”

Professor Allworth, who is also a farmer, agreed drones could become a handy tool on farms.

“We’re trying to get a lot of data so we can teach the drone through AI to be able to herd sheep, so a farmer…could say, ‘Go and herd a certain pen’ , and the drone would go out and position itself properly and bring the sheep in,” he said.

Woman and man in enclosure holding drone between them, brown dog sitting on ground between them.
Ms Yaxley and Professor Allworth are testing the effectiveness of drones in rounding up sheep.(Provided: The Graham Centre/Charles Sturt University)

But he’s realistic about the challenges in the paddock and says some situations wouldn’t be suitable for drones.

“The challenge with drones is things like trees,” he said.

“But just for general gathering, where someone is going out on their side-by-side vehicle or on the motorcycle, taking a drone with them could increase their effectiveness.”

Bette C. Alvarado