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Robot cowboys get cows moooving on the range

Researchers set loose a real-life electric rustler to round up livestock, and say the cows fared well with their new robotic herder.

Rover the robot herds cows at their own pace.

"There's something strange about that cowboy. He's awfully quiet and his eyes glow kinda peculiar like."

Don't mind him. He's just the latest robotic helper to round up the livestock with a flip of the switch. Earlier this month in Sydney, Australia, a team from the University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics tested the four-wheeled remote-controlled robot called Rover to move cattle from a field to a dairy.

The bot looks more like Johnny-Five than an animatronic Will Rogers, but he apparently gets the job done remarkably well without spooking the animals.

"The cows readily accepted the robotic herder and were easily controlled by it," Dan Kara, a research officer for analyst firm ARISPlex, wrote in a report on the experiment. "Groups of 20 to 150 cows were calmly and efficiently herded."

Kendra Kerrisk, an associate professor of veterinary science at the University of Sydney, told BBC News that the robot's steady movement allowed the dairy cows to move at their own pace, "which was important in reducing lameness among cattle."

Dairy researchers created Rover to gather information on robot-cow interaction. While cows have been milked using robotic systems, Rover could reduce accidents in humans who use four-wheeled vehicles to round up animals. Future Rovers will be used to gather data at night to monitor pregnant cows, as well as to detect holes in fences and problems in the soil.

Currently, the Rover is priced at $1 million and is still in the prototype stages, but it could be in the hands of farmers for less in two years, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

While the current version of the robot is human-operated, another version is being developed to be fully automated. In addition to herding, mobile robots like the Rover could have additional possible duties around the farm including "surveillance, surveying, soil sampling, security, graze management, and monitoring calving," Kara suggested.

Previous incarnations of the agricultural robot have been used to monitor growth of fruit trees on orchards.

Eventually, these robots could be designed to do everything human cowboys can do, but the bigger question remains. How does Rover sound around the campfire?