Will cowboys and herding dogs soon be replaced by aerial drones?
That's the question that comes to mind when watching recent video of a drone used to herd cattle in California.
At the start of the video, the herd of cows is distracted by a flock of birds flying above them. However, as the drone flies closer to them, they all stand still and face the direction it’s coming from. When the drone gets within a few feet of them, they shy away from it fearfully.
Finally, the herd becomes nervous enough that it turns and runs away from the drone, which “herds” them across the field. The cattle spend most of the rest of the video running at full speed away from the drone. Still, because the drone hangs back from the herd during parts of the video, it is unclear if the animals' fear of the drone is really what keeps them moving.
The popularity of drone use in agriculture has increased over the past few years, and drones are now being used around the world to herd animals like cows and sheep. People who move herds over large swaths of land are saying it’s a more efficient and effective way to get the job done, and it allows them to keep an eye on the land and cattle more easily.
While sheep seem to be unfazed by drone herders, Australian drone operator and pilot Cameron Parker says cattle need to be trained in order for drone herding to be effective, according to an International Business Times article.
"Because they're prey animals their natural instinct is to run away, so when you first introduce them to this drone you have to do it in a spot where they can't run," Parker told a group of onlookers as he demonstrated the technique.
The cattle in the video from California can be seen bolting from the drone, so they would likely need more exposure to drones in order to be safely herded by them. Making cattle run at full speed can increase their risk for injury.
But as herds become more accustomed to the devices over time, cattle ranchers may be able to save money and time by using them, boosters say.