UK-China Agritech Challenge: Envirobot An autonomous roving platform for environment, health and welfare monitoring of poultry

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Veterinary College
Department Name: Pathobiology and Population Sciences


The poultry industry in China is modernising at a fast pace, but in the process is encountering significant problems with controlling temperature and other key parameters within their production facilities. The technologies currently used in facilities in China (and often elsewhere) do not enable effective monitoring and thus optimisation of temperature control or any other relevant environmental factors. Lack of optimal housing conditions is not only a bird health and welfare issue, but also a source of very significant cost to the Chinese poultry in terms of lost productivity.
Rearing chickens in sub-optimal conditions means that weight for weight, such birds require more feed than if provided with a more optimal environment. Even a very small reduction in feed can have a significant positive effect on productivity. Better conditions will also reduce the risk of disease and mortality to the birds. A significant opportunity therefore exists for UK based organisations, with expertise in this field, to collaborate with Chinese partners to develop an appropriate solution, which will in particular effect an increase in productivity within the poultry sector in China. Furthermore, it will also be a step forward in addressing the currently poor reputation of the poultry industry in China. The solution developed will have applicability in other countries around the world and may also have a use in other livestock industries. Therefore, it is an example of an excellent export opportunity for both the UK and China.
Currently poultry facilities worldwide are constructed with a few wired sensors giving a basic temperature profile in the poultry house. What is proposed is for an autonomous robot to move around the facility capturing data continuously as it moves around and sampling the environment at various heights within the facility, from the lowest cage to the highest cage. Due to the navigation knowledge of the robot it will be able to plot the data giving a 3 dimensional view of all the parameters that the birds are exposed to, to include temperature, humidity, air velocity, CO2 and will also have an on-board camera to allow visual assessment of the conditions and potentially the birds.
In addition the development of a sensor system which is based on a current prototype "e-nose" will allow data regarding the presence of disease to be captured for the first time.
Combining all the data gathered will allow assessments to be carried out that not only detects diseases before symptoms are seen in the birds, but by cross referencing all the environmental data will allow for predictive modelling to occur and potentially for the first time allow the Chinese poultry farmer to prevent sickness in their birds, improving bird welfare, bird performance and go some way to re-building consumer confidence in the product.
One key partner in the business case for this project is Applied Poultry in the UK, which already analyse data from global poultry businesses and turning it into better knowledge and information.
Once the project is completed the aim is for collaboration to continue with some data analysis being conducted by Applied Poultry. Robotics support will come from Ross Robotics. The Chinese farmers will have a dashboard for live real time analysis of their facilities and some knowledge sharing will allow the academic partners (UK and/or China) to remain involved and gaining future information from such a project.
As this proposal is for monitoring birds in cages we can see no reason why the developed robots/sensors/dashboard/data analysis cannot be considered appropriate for caged laying hens globally, although a different disease sensor arrays may be required

Planned Impact

The project addresses the challenge 1 : precision agriculture agriculture digitisation and decision management tools and falls within BBSRC strategic research priority areas: (1) Animal health (developing strategies to combat disease) (2) Sustainably enhancing agricultural production (improving survival/longevity) and (3) Welfare of managed animals (early detection of disease). Outputs include an autonomous roving platform for environmental, health and welfare monitoring and new sensor arrays to detect the digital finger print of Volatile Organic components associated with outbreaks of coccidiosis in broiler flocks. Further more a "Dashbord" collating all information from sensors on the robot and the building management system will greatly improve the farm managers ability to maximise the performance of his flock. Implementation will have an immediate relevance to poultry production and welfare. Outcomes will assist in increasing UK and Chinese competitiveness in the global livestock production market, improving animal welfare and helping to guarantee a secure supply of safe, healthy food. The following stakeholders will benefit from impact arising from this work.

1. The poultry production industry (China & UK)
Chicken production and welfare benefit from the implementation of precision livestock farming systems, but more cost effective applications of existing and novel systems are needed to increase the uptake within the tight economic margins inherent to the poultry industry. Implementation of disease monitoring using automated environmental and disease monitoring will utilise existing technology to improve animal health and welfare and economic performance. Outcomes will also be relevant to other diseases and poultry. Close relationship of the partners with the broiler industry and precision livestock technology providers will ensure the route into commercial poultry production and effective on farm use.

2. Animal welfare
The effective reduction of disease as a result of improved early detection of poultry diseases, supports the Five Freedoms implicit to animal welfare as set out by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Further more the optimisation of the internal climate will directly benefit poultry produced.

3. General public and the environment
Increased efficiency in poultry production will raise poultry product availability at a lower cost for the consumer, contributing to improved food security. Early detection of for instance coccidiosis and targeted medication and remediation of the litter condition is likely to reduce drug consumption, the risk of contamination entering the food chain and the environment, and selection for drug resistance.
All investigators are actively engaged in public dissemination of UK research.

4. Skills, knowledge and training
The multidisciplinary nature of this project, spanning ethology, robot technology, bio-engineering and environmental science will provide opportunities for broad training to all staff, in addition to other members and students of each host institution, strengthening the research community in the areas of precision livestock farming and disease control.


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Description presentatio/discussion re robotics in poultry production 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact presentation at Defra (Welfare section and infectious disease experts) by Dr Theo Demmers (RVC), Philip Norman (Ross Robotics) and David Speller (Applied Poultry) re use of autonomous robotic monitoring platforms in poultry production (Broilers and Laying Chickens, as well as breeding stock). Discussion re potential use of commercial products by stakeholders for various purposes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020