Scientists studying sheepdogs' tactics
Farmers may wonder what all the fuss is about, but European scientists are pretty excited after using high technology and maths to work out how sheepdogs herd sheep.
The researchers reckon the discovery could have a range of uses from robots leading people out of burning buildings to controlling flocking robots. The discovery of the dogs' system could also be used to put the loyal and enthusiastic toilers out of a job.
Dr Andrew King of Swansea University put backpacks containing extremely accurate GPS devices on a flock of sheep and a sheepdog. Daniel Strombom of Uppsala University and colleagues then used the data obtained, together with computer simulations, to develop a mathematical shepherding model.
They found sheepdogs appeared to operate on two simple rules.
"If the dog sees gaps between the sheep, or the gaps are getting bigger, the dog needs to bring them together," King said.
Strombom added: "At every time step in the model, the dog decides if the herd is cohesive enough or not. If not cohesive, it will make it cohesive, but if it's already cohesive the dog will push the herd towards the target."
In the mathematical shepherding model developed by the researchers, a single shepherd could herd a flock of more than 100 individuals using the two simple rules worked out in the study.
"Other models don't appear to be able to herd really big groups – as soon as the number of individuals gets above 50 you start needing multiple shepherds or sheepdogs," Strombom said.
A report on the study was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
“Our approach should support efficient designs for herding autonomous, interacting agents in a variety of contexts," the article said.
“Obvious cases are robot-assisted herding of livestock, and keeping animals away from sensitive areas, but applications range from control of flocking robots, cleaning up of environments and human crowd control.”