Studying how dogs herd sheep could help robots learn how to herd humans

Photo by Dennis Albert Richardson/Shutterstock

You’re trapped in an unfamiliar building rapidly being consumed by flames. It’s smoky and you can barely see, complicating you finding your way out. Suddenly, a robot enters the room and herds you and the other people around you toward a stairwell and, finally, out the door.

Robots could become a powerful tool in emergency situations, when they would be capable of entering burning or toxic buildings instead of endangering more human lives. But figuring out exactly how they can help is tricky. They need to be able to read their surroundings quickly and then immediately take action. There’s no time for heavy, time-intensive computing.

Help might come from a familiar source: dogs. Herding dogs instinctually know the best way to quickly and efficiently move a flock of sheep or other animal to a target, and robots could use the same system to move humans.

A team of researchers at Swansea University outfitted sheep and herding dogs with GPS backpacks to figure out exactly what makes the dogs so good at keeping livestock together. They found that the dogs weave back and forth behind sheep to keep them in a tight bunch and collect stragglers. Once the sheep are together, the dogs drive them forward. It sounds intuitive, but based on the GPS information they got back the researchers were able to develop a mathematical model that can then replicate the most efficient path for driving sheep forward on a computer.

The model shows how a single robot could be used to herd a group of 100 people — something that could be a huge help in a disaster. Robots don’t need to be limited to herding humans either; they could replace the very dogs that taught them how to herd. Of course, International Sheep Dog Society president Jim Easton described the notion to The Telegraph as “complete nonsense.”

“I’d like to see a robot try and round up a Swaledale sheep that was hiding behind a rock, or get up some of the rocky mountain passes that we have in Britain, or the peat bogs,” Easton told The Telegraph. “And for a farmer a sheep dog is a friend. A robot could never replace that friendship.”

Just you wait, Mr. Easton. Just you wait.

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