It’s faster than a meandering cow, smarter than the average kelpie and can run for as long as 12 hours without a break.
A robotic cow herder, the first of its sort for dairy farming, may soon be able to call each cow by name if she dawdles at milking time. But don’t even suggest that DUGv, as the 900kg dairy unmanned ground vehicle is known, would ever replace working dogs on a dairy farm.
“It is definitely not about replacing dogs, it is about providing farmers with more options,” said Cameron Clark, a senior research fellow with Sydney University’s faculty of veterinary science.
While the unmanned vehicle may herd cattle for one or two hours, it is envisaged DUGv will spend the rest of the day performing other tasks. “It is much more than herding cows,'' Dr Clark said.
"DUGv is a platform to do multiple tasks on a dairy farm: it could monitor pasture levels, which is important for farmers, it could do soil testing, soil fertilisation and application. Really, the opportunities are boundless for dairy farmers.”
It will take a bit more work for the vehicle, which resembles a giant remote-controlled golf buggy, to herd cows moolessly. Eventually it will operate autonomously. But the vehicle seemed to startle some of the cows. When DUGv moved towards them, some cows were curious, others kicked up their heels, but most shied away in the direction of the dairy at Sydney University's working farm at Camden last week.
Over the next few months, the vehicle will be fitted with cameras and other equipment that will let it perform a range of tasks that reduce the repetitive jobs that dominate a dairy farmer's day.
For dairy hand Ian Chapman DUGv could mean an end to getting out of bed at 1.30am, as he has done since 1987, to start getting the cows ready at 2.45am for milking.
“I won’t even need to get out of bed,” said Chapman. “It can go all day. If they put a camera on it, you will be able to see five cows down there who haven't moved."
Eventually the vehicle will go from pushing the cows by driving behind them to pulling them by calling their names or making sounds to encourage the herd to follow it to milking.
Dr Clark said research had shown that cows recognise sounds, including their own names.
Other robotic unmanned vehicles are being tested on vegetable farms. Sydney University's systems engineer Mark Calleija has been testing a robot called Labybird on farms at Cowra. He said it could weed with a hooked arm, fertilise and analyse soil.