The Van Trump Report

Robots are Coming for the Chickens!

The labor shortage in agriculture is acute and only expected to get worse as younger generations continue to turn away from farming. Herman, Nebraska-based Birds Eye Robotics aims to solve the labor problem for the poultry industry with a robot designed to improve animal welfare in poultry barns. The contraption can stimulate movement, clean barns, and even identify and remove dead birds, all while reducing labor costs and frustrations.

In 2019, Scott Niewohner, Founder & CEO, Birds Eye Robotics, along with his high school-aged son, cobbled together the first prototype of the poultry caretaker robot from an old electric wheelchair, a microprocessor, a webcam and some sensors they had lying around the house. Niewohner explains that he grew up on a farm and what he loved most was “building and fixing and creating.” Back in his youth, though, it was all duct tape and baling wire, “but now we’re using technology.”    

The robot is of course a lot more sophisticated looking now. Niewohner says the trial and error process also unveiled some new capabilities along the way. The robot was initially intended to “We found that when we tried building this robot one of our problems was traction. There’s manure on the floor and our wheels would get caked up and we would get stuck, so we built some custom spiked wheels that were self-cleaning. But in doing so, we found that we are turning the bedding,” he explained. “Now, a major benefit of our robot is that we’re aerating the bedding.”

The robot uses sensors that combine into a neural network, a form of machine learning that helps a computer learn a task. They have used computer vision to train the robot to recognize whether a bird is deceased and needs to be retrieved. The robot is designed to perform a recovery sequence four times a day, taking a different route through the poultry house each time. As the robot moves through the broiler house, it stimulates the chickens to move. It can navigate around feeders, water lines, and other equipment, and even has an emergency stop enabled for animal safety. Once each trip around the poultry house is completed, the robot returns to its charging station to power up.

Birds Eye was recently selected as an awardee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research grant from The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The $175,000 in funding will be used to support further development of its computer vision and grapple mechanism. Birds Eye has also been looking for select poultry growers and operators across the Midwest to partner with on its pilot program. You can learn more at their website HERE.

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