Machine Vision Sees Into Chickens’ Futures

A jump to the left and a step to the right are signs of healthy activity, as chicken farmers who stroll among their flocks already know. Now a team led by robotics engineer Stephen Roberts at the University of Oxford has found that patterns in the collective motion of a flock of chickens can help farmers predict disease weeks before onset. Call it a chicken time warp.

Roberts and animal-welfare researchers at Oxford first tested their pattern-detection system by asking it to warn farmers before a flock got “peckish.” That’s not a euphemism for “hungry.” Well-fed hens, it turns out, sometimes take out their worm-hunting instincts on one another. The system, which consisted of cameras recording a flock, followed by computer analysis of the footage, beat human experts at flagging the at-risk flocks before the madness took its toll [“Computer System Counters Hen Horrors,” September 2010].

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