Imaging software is pure animal magic

Why did the chicken cross the shed? A multi-disciplinary team is developing state-of-the-art computer imaging technology to find out. Computer studies and biology researchers are helping farmers encourage the birds to lead a more active lifestyle, making them stronger and meatier.

Who are you calling chicken? Derek Sergeant with a feathered friend

The team is analysing the behaviour of broiler chickens, which are bred for meat in huge sheds. To strengthen chicken's future drumsticks, farmers try to make birds move about, for example by altering light levels and moving feeders. Without such prompting many chickens would sit still.

By installing cameras in the roof of an experimental shed at Gleadthorpe research farm in Nottinghamshire, Roger Boyle and Michael Forbes have been able to monitor the success of these poultry-pushing strategies. The project depends on solving the tricky problem of being able to track the movement of individual birds with a computer. "The birds tend to huddle together which just looks like a massive clump of feathers," said Dr Boyle. Image recognition software has been developed to identify these stationary chickens, based on an ‘average’ feathered outline. This helps researchers identify chickens’ reaction to shifting feeders and changing light levels, saving human chicken-watchers the tedious job of baby-sitting thousands of birds. Derek Sergeant and Andy Bulpitt have also been working on the project, which is funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Professor Forbes and Dr Boyle believe the technology can be extended further through the farmyard. "The same principles could be applied to pigs and cows," said Professor Forbes. "Image recognition software could pick out when a piglet is in difficulty, for example if it is trapped beneath its mother when feeding, and it could help detect lame cows from the unusual way they walk." More

Reporter 442, 8 November 1999

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