Old McDonald officially has a new friend on the farm, as Cargill just introduced a fully-functional robotic cowboy, created by a company called Flock Free onto one of their Nebraska cattle farms.
The robotic cowboy, which doesn’t look like a space-age machine, proves that sometimes the most straightforward technology can make the most significant difference. On a ranch where farmers have to move thousands of cattle continually, accidents are common and calamitous. Rather than finding themselves down in the fields with the animals, farmers can now watch from overhead as they control the robot with a remote.
“These are very large animals that we deal with,” said Sammy Renteria, general manager at the plant. “And it’s something that causes concern because there is no way of knowing what the animal is going to do.”
Each cow is between 1,500 and 1,800 pounds, and although they’re generally gentle creatures. Until there’s 5,000 of them. This is the issue that farmers all over America deal with. The farm workers who have to herd the cattle into their pens often wear body padding, helmets, shin guards and more. Dressed like umpires, the works normally stand at a series of rails as thousands of cows walk by them daily, as they give commands and push them forward.
“You’re herding live animals,” said Matt Croghan, yard supervisor. “They could turn on you, run you over, kick you, hurt you. So, anything we can do to be safer while we do this, we’re going to do.”
This is just one of the many instances where our society is starting to lean on robots. Human workers are still required to control the robotic cowboy until companies can make it smart enough to be self-sufficient. But all over the world, farms, nuclear sites, construction bases, and other dangerous projects are beginning to use robot technology. It’s easy to rebuild a robot if there’s an accident, so it’s a no-brainer.
“One of our vendors sent me a link to a video. And probably within 10 seconds of watching the video, I just immediately knew we could move cattle with that kind of robot,” says Brad Churchill.
The video Churchill saw displayed a security robot with a plastic body. Still, he knew that if that robotic cowboy could be rebuilt to suit farm purposes, it could save lives. So they replaced the plastic frame with steel, the wheels were redesigned to go through mud, engineers attached a blower that makes it possible to move the cattle without touching them. Finally, the last touch was the flailing arms holding black plastic bags, the sight the cows are used to seeing from the workers. Now, waving the bags back and forth, the robot safely herds the cattle.
“From a safety standpoint you don’t have to have an individual there pushing cattle forward,” said Renteria. “So, if the animal decides to turn, it’s not a person hurt. It’s just a machine that we can fix.”
Cargill plans to slowly get a robotic cowboy in every one of their farms. The pilot program started in Pennsylvania, so there are a few places in the US already using these handy devices to keep their farm workers safe.