Robotics could play a key role in the future of the poultry industry.
Speakers at the 55th annual National Poultry Health, Processing and Live Production Conference, held virtually Sept. 28-30, discussed implications from helping debone chicken precisely within seconds to patrolling poultry houses for dead birds or eggs.
Robots and drones won’t bread and fry the chicken, at least not yet, but they have the potential to do a remarkable array of tasks quickly and well.
Normally, the conference hosted by Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. draws a large crowd to Ocean City, Maryland, but the sessions were held virtually this year because of COVID-19 health concerns.
Colin Usher of Georgia Tech Research Institute said robots can reduce, but not eliminate, the need for farmers to spend time in the poultry houses. With less human contact, the possible spread of diseases like avian influenza is also reduced.
Robots can disinfect houses and gently nudge chickens in order to keep the birds moving, he said.
“Ideally, we would like it to be like a Roomba — just set it up in your house and press go,” Usher said.
Videos showed the robots very non-aggressively nudging birds to move out of the way. The robots can be used to disinfect and measure temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
“We even put a Geiger counter on it because we could,” he said.
Much of his presentation concentrated on using the robots to search for and remove dead birds and eggs. He said the robots can find about 90% of eggs and that it takes about 20 seconds to a minute to do so.
Drones could also be used to spot dead birds and then relay that information to robots.
Software can even be installed to monitor the gait of birds. That software is similar to that used by doctors to look at the gait of athletes or patients who have suffered through a stroke, Usher said.
Drones could also perhaps be used to administer aerosol vaccines. Usher said they were looking at having drones administer vaccines while the birds slept.
Usher said Europe is probably ahead of the U.S. in the use of robots in poultry houses because the higher cost of chicken makes farmers more likely to invest in robotics.
Speakers were asked about security and whether the robots could be hacked. They said that a password is generally being used now, but they acknowledged that that is an issue which farmers need to consider.
Dr. Ai-Ping Hu of the Georgia Tech Research Institute spoke about his research to develop robots to more precisely debone chickens on processing lines. Videos of the research showed 3-D imaging of individual birds which allowed robots wielding knives to determine the exact place to precisely cut individual birds within seconds.
Videos showed the robots deboning 15 chickens per minute, which was 75% of their capacity, he said.
That precision can save valuable meat because birds vary in weight, making precision more difficult. It also helps deal with labor shortages.
Both speakers said costs vary, but that efforts are underway to reduce costs and make robotics more affordable. Usher noted that fairly good quality drones are now readily available for only about $500, although short battery life is still an issue.