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Beyond the Bale : December 2018
ON FARM 67 The UTS robotics team used the latest digital technology to demonstrate gentle and intuitive shearing blow patterns using two robot arms on each side of a 3D printed sheep. The results from an AWI- funded scoping study into robotic-assisted shearing demonstrate the plausibility of a semi-autonomous wool harvesting system. The scoping study will help guide AWI’s future investment in the area. CUTTING EDGE R&D INTO ROBOTIC SHEARING As reported in the September edition of Beyond the Bale, AWI has brought together some of the best shearers and robotic experts in Australia to help determine how a robot, equipped with the latest digital technology, will be able to shear a sheep. Further work has been undertaken and the researchers from University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have now completed its scoping study into semi-autonomous shearing. MACHINE LEARNING ON A 3D PRINTED SHEEP “To enable the UTS researchers to test out the feasibility of their robotics in a sheep shearing situation, they needed a life-sized model of a sheep,” said AWI’s shearing industry development coordinator Jim Murray. So, in October, they carried out 3D scanning of several sheep with the help of AWI. Using the latest printer technology, the researchers then printed a 3D sheep of the same shape, size and contours as a real sheep. Once printed, this sheep allowed the UTS team to transfer their robotic knowledge from other industries – such as robotic assisted surgery and robotic apple picking – to the life-sized printed sheep. This was achieved by programming robotic arms to mimic a shearer’s blow pattern along the life-sized sheep model, where a proxy ‘end- effector’ (a soft ball) maintained contact with the surface of the model sheep, closely following its contours. The blow patterns were ‘taught’ to the robot by a human demonstrator. Computer algorithms then enabled the robot to store memory of its movement and apply this to its next movements – effectively learning. “Every time this prototype shears a sheep, its method gets stored in the robot’s memory bank,” Jim said. “The first time it sheared a sheep it took five or ten minutes, but the next time it won’t have to think about it as much. It might take 100-200 sheep before it has got enough knowledge in its memory bank to shear quickly, but once it has that knowledge it could be very efficient.” INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY AND EASE The researchers’ focus in this preliminary study was for the robot to concentrate on the higher quality fleece wool, with a human shearer removing the oddments. “If we can get the robot to take the fleece wool off in under two minutes and we have somebody else on an upright posture shearing platform doing all the trimmings (bellies, points, pieces etc), we’re looking at 240 sheep a day being shorn – and so for two people employed that’s 120 sheep per person,” Jim said. “When you consider that in most shed operations today each shearer is probably shearing 80 to 90 sheep per person employed in the shed, there’s a definite productivity gain that can be had with robotic-assisted shearing.” Jim also emphasised that robotic shearing is not aimed at making shearers redundant, but rather at increasing productivity and making the job of shearers less physically demanding. “It’s important to note that this system is not about putting shearers out of work. It still needs somebody to for instance make sure the sheep have been positioned correctly for the robot, plus the person shearing off the oddments will probably be shearing in an upright position and not bent over, which will limit the strain on the shearers’ back and increase the longevity of their career in the industry.” ANIMAL WELFARE AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS During this scoping phase, there was discussion about the best way to position the sheep so they were comfortable – and to enable smooth and consistent blows by the robot. The researchers and shearers concluded that a prone position for the sheep with them lying on a support frame could be the best solution. “It's about keeping the animals in their natural position, making it obviously very safe for them. Maintaining animal welfare is paramount,” Jim said. “The sheep we used when trialling the support frame had just been fed and despite their full bellies the sheep were very comfortable and didn’t show any sign of struggle.” The researchers have also considered the type of shearing device that cuts off the wool and the advantages and disadvantages of shearing right next to skin, or alternatively using high-riders like cover combs to shear a few millimetres away from the skin. NEXT STEPS The completed UTS scoping study has now been publicly released by AWI and is being circulated to shearing and technology experts to increase the interest in shearing technology. The project’s outcomes will provide strategic guidance to AWI and researchers on potential future technological directions to improve efficiency, working conditions and quality in the shearing process. “The research is still very much in its infancy, but it’s very exciting times,” Jim added. MORE INFORMATION The scoping study report and a video is available at www.wool.com/robotics Hear more about the project in Episode 69 of The Yarn podcast, available at www.wool.com/podcast.
In the Shops - March 2019