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Drones, robots key to Georgia's agriculture growth, experts say
Chickens OK with rolling drones, but fearful of airborne ones
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In the next decade, the poultry industry in Georgia could include drones and robots performing tasks done today by human hands.

Research and testing of this technology is already well underway, according to Douglas Britton, manager of the Agricultural Technology Research Program at Georgia Tech.

Poultry processing and production is the program’s biggest strategic research area, Britton said.

“Our goal there is to really push the boundary of what we’re thinking about and doing,” he said. “It’s to ask the question, ‘What is that going to look like 10, 15, 20 or 30 years from now?’”

Britton was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the annual Georgia Ag Forecast, hosted by the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

He presented several major technological advances being developed by the program. One is a form of “intelligent deboning,” or advanced robotics that can remove the meat from chicken bones, a task currently done best by hand.

“The human hand is ideally suited to making that cut and being very efficient at it, so developing a machine that is as good as a human at making that cut and being as efficient as a human is a big challenge,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation based in Gainesville. “This has been a multiyear research program that is making progress.”

Britton said there is already technology that can debone chicken, but it is only effective on a specific-sized bird.

“What we have found is that doesn’t deliver the yield in the requirements for our industry, particularly when we get to the larger-sized bird found particularly here in Georgia,” he said.

The robotic technology being developed and tested by the program would capture information from the outside of the bird, determine its size and therefore its internal bone structure.

“The benefit there is we can adjust every cut for that specific bird,” he said.

This technology could save poultry industry leaders upward of $1 million a year in yield and labor savings.

Britton said the program also did an experiment at the University of Georgia’s poultry science department to determine how live chickens respond to the presence of robots and drones in houses.

“You don’t want to have a robotics system in a grow-out house if it’s going to negatively impact your yield or performance or feed conversion rates for your flock,” he said.

They tested the use of a flying drone in a house with small chickens, and it was clear the flock was afraid of the drone. Britton said they showed a “predatory response” to the flying machines, but they were comfortable with rolling robots.

“We had to add a bumper to the system because we were bumping into the chickens,” he said. “... At one point in time there was actually a chicken riding a robot, so they did not have any issues with it and the little chicks were very curious about it.”

Giles said the next step with this technology is to determine how a robot could best be used in a house. He said possibilities include monitoring, maintenance or tasks typically done by humans that might disturb the flock more than a robot.

While these innovations are not yet used in North Georgia, the area’s strong poultry industry has already changed drastically over the years thanks to such innovations, according to Giles.

“There have been incredible advancements over the last few decades and technological innovation will really be the key to the success of the poultry industry in the future,” Giles said.

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