Robot milkmaid with laser-assisted vision system Robot Books

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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine

Jon Copley

A robot milkmaid with a laser-assisted vision system is allowing cows in a Swedish herd to be milked whenever they feel like it. "Milking twice per day imposes an unnatural regime on cows," explains Sue Spencer, a member of a team which developed the robot at the Silsoe Research Institute in Bedfordshire. Overfull udders can induce lameness and other ailments, she says.

Like other milking robots, this one uses an arm to attach milking cups to the cow's teats. But finding the teats is no easy task. An early prototype felt its way around the animal, but cows found this ticklish and kept moving away. So the latest version finds the teats with the help of a camera and two lasers mounted on the arm.

As the lasers scan a stripe of light over the cow, the robot's image-analyzing program detects when the stripe falls on the teats, allowing the cups to home in. The pneumatic arm is light and nimble enough to follow a teat if the cow shuffles about in its milking stall. It also moves gently enough not to harm the cow if they collide.

Cows that want to be milked walk into an open barn that houses the robot. Each cow wears a collar carrying a transponder that identifies it, so the system can decide whether the animal is due to be milked. If it is, a gate to the milking stall opens. Otherwise the cow is diverted to another area. The system is being used with a herd of 30 cows on a farm owned by Alfa Laval Agri of Tumba, Sweden, which will market the robot.

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