Feature: Are we ready for Poultrybot and Robochick?

By David Burrows

Examining the technologies that poultry could adopt to drive best practice and performance

Three years ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge created an algorithm that used Facebook “likes” to determine an individual’s psychological traits. Their computer could reportedly judge personality more accurately than workmates, friends or even a spouse. The technology could even be used to decide which career path to choose or who to marry. These data-driven decisions “may well improve people’s lives”, the researchers said.

Given the year Facebook has had, that might be jumping the gun a bit (the Cambridge Analytica scandal has put the brakes on big data, with people’s perceptions having swung firmly towards creepy rather than cool). But in agriculture the use of data, artificial intelligence and robotics continues to accelerate.

“The internet of animals has arrived,” noted US technology magazine Wired in an article in January 2017. “Wearables help farmers dissect the disorder of 20,000 clucking, bobbing heads – understanding what makes each chicken tick, and spotting when they’re getting sick or injured.”

Using microphones and mini GPS trackers, or sensors fixed to robots, farmers can monitor their livestock in more detail than ever before – and in real time. There’s new work underway to determine the impact that robots roaming about the buildings will have on day old chicks, two-kilo broilers and everything in between. Some farmers are even trialling the use of sensors to detect changes in the volatile compounds within shed that are a precursor to illness (apparently using a similar principle to the one that enables dogs to sniff out some cancers in people).

Indeed, the benefits of big data, artificial intelligence and smart tech are reportedly legion: improved bird welfare, reduced use of antibiotics and better production. Technology could also plug the well-reported skills gap in the sector; it could even mean less work and more pay for producers. At Wageningen University in the Netherlands for instance there’s a “Poultrybot” that can meander through the flock picking up eggs. Meanwhile, in France, one poultry farmer has started his own company to search for practical solutions that will make his life easier and his chickens’ lives better: Spoutnic is a robot that moves around the flock to prevent lethargy and eggs being laid on the floor, reportedly cutting shed walk-throughs in half and savings thousands of Euros.

“Traditionally, people haven’t even thought about phrases like ‘work/life balance’ in the world of farming, but with technological progress that could start to change,” said the business secretary Greg Clark as he announced a £90m agri-tech fund at this year’s NFU conference. “It could bring a profound benefit to the country’s hard-working farmers and their families, in addition to higher levels of profitability.”

But despite the potential, is the poultry sector ready to adapt to this shift and embrace the changes technology will bring?

A good man to ask is David Speller – farmer, owner of the Applied Group consultancy and tech enthusiast. In his 14 years in the industry Speller has pioneered underfloor heating, CCTV and CO2 monitors. Now he’s moved on to robots, big data and predictive analytics (he’s the one trialling the volatile compound sensoring systems mentioned above). You might say he is this sector’s answer to Tony Stark (from the Iron Man movies), but the furrow he is ploughing is currently a lonely one. “In the broiler sector, average works – average is predictable,” he explains. “But average and predictable won’t go hand in hand with some of this technology. It’s not worth spending the money [and Speller has spent a lot]unless it brings about change. If you’re not a business that can embrace change then that is a problem.”

Indeed, Speller, who regularly tops Moy Park’s productivity league, doesn’t have time for those who say they’re “doing ok”. Those in the 400 club for production efficiency factor should be looking at the genetic potential of their birds and aiming for 450, he says. And with margins having dropped another percent, some are already closing their wallets to further investment. This could be short-sighted.

As Dr David Llewellyn, vice-chancellor at Harpers Adams University, put it in his recent Templeton Report (The future skills needs of the poultry industry: developing its leaders, managers and technologists for the information age): “Retaining a focus on ‘traditional’ areas of expertise, such as nutrition and husbandry skills, while essential, may not be sufficient for a future where other industry sectors will be embracing technology at a rapid pace,” he wrote. The industry also needs to improve its “horizon scanning”, he said, as well as think outside the box when it comes to applying new tech from other sectors – advances that “might prove beneficial, even to the point of having a positive influence on consumer views about poultry production”.

Speller, unsurprisingly, is already on the hunt for ideas in unlikely places. Most recently, he’s been talking to a group of astrophysicists about the tools they use to “listen to billions of stars. “They somehow make sense of all that, so can I also use that [kind of technology]to listen to 50,000 chickens?” Like Stark, he is certainly ambitious. “Most sectors started with the simple stuff, like robots moving a box from A to B,” he adds, “but we’re going straight for the complicated stuff.”

Indeed, trawl the internet for technological developments that will benefit the poultry sector and there is everything from on-site 3D printing of replacement parts and “nanny robots” used to detect ill birds to a virtual reality headset that gives caged birds the impression they are “free”. The latter isn’t entirely serious, the designer has suggested, but it raises important questions. “I feel like this is more of a design project, to get people to have a conversation about animal husbandry,” said Second Livestock founder Austin Stewart recently. After all, mortality rates in free-range birds are generally higher than for housed, whilst the environmental footprint of intensively-reared animals can be lower than those that are free-ranging. Could this be a humane and climate-friendly way to rear livestock?

That’s a question for another day, but virtual reality has already been used in the sector – in 2016 McDonald’s used the technology to allow consumers to give consumers a “real-life glimpse” of how the food on its menu is made and where it comes from. The series of immersive videos included a trip around a free-range egg producer in Cumbria. But how far is the industry willing to go – are they willing to use technology to fling their barn doors wide open? In July, countryfile presenter Tom Heap proposed that webcams should be installed “at every stage of production”, with hyperlinks on packaging so shoppers can see where their food comes from. It could be branded “Candid Cockerel” or “The visible pig” he wrote in Radio Times.

According to Dr Llewellyn, the use of technology to improve bird welfare is definitely a “new story to tell”. In his report he noted that: “There is room for discussion about the use of a wider variety of sensors to better understand poultry behaviour, the management of environmental conditions and what informatics can show about health and welfare issues so that the benefits of these techniques for the chicken, rather than the business, can be explained.”

Dr Theo Demmers has just started a project at the Royal Veterinary College in London. “Robochick” is a feasibility study to determine whether a robot can happily trundle through a flock on its own taking readings from the environment without damaging the birds or being damaged by them. “You don’t want to run over a day old chick, but equally you don’t want to grind to a halt in a shed full of 2.5 kilo broilers,” he says. “So all we’re looking at is whether you can move a robot around the shed [autonomously]so it does nothing other than take readings.” Of course, if successful then it’s possible to start talking about the potential to improve bird welfare. For example, it might be possible to use the data collected to detect coccidiosis early and “stop it in its tracks”, says Demmers.

With antibiotic use is in the spotlight and animal welfare a priority for consumers, farmers and food businesses, a lot of the work going on at the moment involves the early detection of health issues. Speller says the project he is doing involving sensors that pick up changes in the volatile compounds within a poultry shed could detect problems three days earlier than any microbiological tests. There’s also a project involving a robot that analyses droppings – it takes 10,000 images a day, with details of how wet the faces is, as well as its colour and shape, all of which help “predict what’s happening with the birds”.

Some might say that an experienced farm manager could do pretty much the same job, but they don’t grow on trees. Indeed, the ability of technology to fill a gap in skills could be one of its most crucial benefits. “Labour issues will be a bigger driver [for technology]than money or margins,” says Speller. And artificial intelligence is already being developed to make the same decisions as a human stockman – perhaps even quicker, more accurate ones.

A future in which the day to day running of poultry farms is handed over to young, inexperienced staff guided by robots, might not be everyone’s idea of progress. But as Llewellyn noted, it is “inevitable” that the rapid advances in technology seen in other walks of life will impact on the poultry industry: “The industry must therefore be ready to adapt to this change.”

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