Can a robot autonomously navigate a poultry house? Yes, say researchers with the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s (GTRI) Agricultural Technology Research Program.
Autonomous navigation for robots in commercial facilities is not a new thing, notes Colin Usher, GTRI research scientist and project director. In fact, the highly structured environments of manufacturing facilities are conducive for robotic tasks such as picking and placing items on pallets for warehousing. And more specifically, the robot’s actions are unhindered by humans who are trained to allow it to carry out its tasks.
“A poultry house full of chickens does not afford this luxury,” explains Usher. “A robot system that can operate in a poultry house must interact with the chickens. It must be able to navigate the environment and form plans without human intervention.”
The research team’s solution: a commercially available ground robot outfitted with 2D and 3D sensors and cameras. Nicknamed GOHBot, the Growout House Robot was initially manually operated in an experimental growout house at the University of Georgia (UGA) to establish the feasibility of operating robots in poultry houses. Results of this testing showed there to be no negative impact on the birds due to robotic systems operating in the flocks.
“Interestingly, it appears that the birds were even more comfortable with the GOHBot than with humans,” says Usher.
Having established the feasibility of operating a robotic vehicle in the house, the team set out to determine if autonomous navigation was possible. Autonomous navigation could open the door for robotic handling of tasks ranging from automatic removal of floor eggs in breeder houses to constant monitoring of birds for disease and well-being.
Here, the team studied several interactions between the GOHBot and the birds to establish a path/routine for the GOHBot based on the birds’ behaviors. “Simply put, it can be expected that a chicken will move out of the way of the robot to allow it to move unhindered,” says Usher.
But, what if the chicken does not move? Usher says if a chicken does not move, then the robot can encourage it to move by nudging it. If nudging fails to clear a path, the robot will then plan a new path around that chicken.
This robot autonomy navigation plan was implemented and tested using the GOHBot in a UGA experimental growout house. The house contained enough breeder-age birds to simulate the capacity of a commercial breeder production house. Video cameras were positioned to collect video data for the duration of testing. To date, the GOHBot has successfully completed more than 20 hours of fully autonomous operation.
Usher says no robot-to-bird incidents were recorded, establishing the GOHBot as a feasible robotic system for safe, autonomous operation in a flock of birds. A sample picture taken from the recorded video data during the experimental tests is shown below.
Given the successes of the experimental tests, the team hopes to soon test the GOHBot in a full-scale commercial house. Talks are underway with a local poultry company.
If commercial tests prove just as successful, Usher says there is a multitude of potential poultry production applications for the GOHBot, including:
• Automatic removal of floor eggs in breeder and cage-free layer facilities
• Automatic removal and logging of cadavers
• Mobile sensing of temperature, humidity, ammonia, etc.
• Examination of equipment for proper operation
• Characterization of flock well-being
• Automatic weighing and sizing of flocks
“Our ultimate goal with the GOHBot is to completely eliminate, or at least, vastly minimize the need for farmers and farm hands to enter their growout houses,” says Usher. “This not only reduces labor, but could also reduce the incidence of contamination, whether chemical or biological, by minimizing the need for people to enter the houses.”