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Tuesday, November 24, 1998 Published at 17:12 GMT


More byte and less stress

Herding could be less stressful if robots are used

A university research team has designed a robot sheepdog which will cut the stress levels suffered by herded animals.

The mechanical sheepdog, named Rover, has been developed by Oxford University's computing laboratory, to see whether animals prefer to be directed by a robot than a barking dog or a shouting human.

So far the robot has been tested on ducks, as they have "similar flocking behaviour" to sheep, with Rover providing "just sufficient unease among the ducks to affect their direction", says Stephen Cameron, Reader in Computing Sciences.

Ducks will not be likely to mistake Rover for a real sheepdog, as the university itself describes the robot as "resembling a hat box on wheels". Its top speed is four metres a second, enough to pursue any reluctant ducks.

Standing 28cm high, the radio-controlled robot has a built-in camera and computer which allows Rover and the shepherd to identify relative postions and to steer the ducks in the right direction.

The research is intended to develop a greater understanding of how animals' behaviour can be controlled by machines, with the aim of reducing their anxieties.

The "animal-interactive robotics" project is part of a three-year research programme into the possibilities of mechanical herding.

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