Researcher cracks winning algorithm

New technology by University of Southern Queensland researcher set to revolutionise the poultry industry

We may never know which came first between the chicken and the egg, but thankfully Dr Cheryl McCarthy’s algorithm wasn’t far behind them.

Poultry farming in Australia could be set for a major advancement thanks to the revolutionary research by a University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) Senior Research Fellow.

Dr Cheryl McCarthy, a mechatronic engineer at the University’s Centre for Agricultural Engineering, has been named the 2023 AgriFutures Australia Researcher of the Year for her ground-breaking work on automated chicken monitoring.

Dr McCarthy’s research project, funded by AgriFutures Australia, has successfully been able to track the weight and movement of a flock of chickens using only a camera and image analysis; thus, reducing the need for farmers to manually handle their flock.

This automated system would not only reduce the stress placed on the animal; it would also save time and provide more frequent, accurate data for the farmer.

When Dr McCarthy finally cracked the algorithm which would automatically calculate a sample of the flock’s weight, she said her jaw dropped.

“I was writing up some results in this massive spreadsheet of data – about 50 columns and 500 rows – and I was just sitting there doing graphs,” Dr McCarthy said.

“Suddenly I did the graph, and it was a nice smooth line. It was jaw-dropping,” she said.

“It was quite serendipitous because at the time I’d actually been calculating something else when I realised I had made a weight graph,” she said.

“Then, of course, I had to think through the ‘why’ and ‘how’ for actually getting there… and it all made sense.”

The next step for this feat of mechatronic engineering would be commercialisation – essentially, turning this research into a technology farmers could buy off the shelf and install in their own sheds.

It’s a goal Dr McCarthy said she was already working towards.

“I am working with the chicken meat industry through AgriFutures and a commercial partner to conduct extended field trials. We’re also considering what the user experience of such a product could look like,” she said.

Dr McCarthy said it was entirely possible they could have this technology locked in and ready to revolutionise poultry farming within the next two years.

AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program Research Manager Sarika Pandya said the project findings will strengthen the industry.

“The project addresses a number of research objectives outlined in our RD&E Plan to invest in more automation to improve on-farm operations and improve chicken meat production through the whole supply chain,” Ms Pandya said.

“This technology will likely create valuable efficiencies on-farm, and although there is still more work to be done, the potential commercialisation of this technology could improve profitability for chicken meat producers,” she said.

“This award is a fitting acknowledgement of who Cheryl is, the important work she is doing to improve the chicken meat industry’s productivity and viability, and how she links her research to what industry needs.”

The University of Southern Queensland’s Director for the Centre for Agricultural Engineering Professor Bernadette McCabe said she was extremely proud to see Dr McCarthy take out the prestigious award.

“The AgriFutures Australia Research Award is a great achievement. It acknowledges Cheryl’s ability to produce research of an extremely high quality and recognises her valuable contribution towards the advancement of Australian agriculture,” Professor McCabe said.

“Cheryl has shown outstanding leadership in delivering new technology projects for the Australian chicken meat industry that has extended the Centre for Agricultural Engineering’s traditional core automation research in cropping to new opportunities in the livestock sector,” she said.

“Cheryl is an extremely worthy recipient and I’ve really enjoyed supporting and witnessing her grow as a research leader over the last 18 months.”

Professor McCabe joined Dr McCarthy at the AgriFutures Australia Gala Dinner in Cairns, where Dr McCarthy was presented with her award.

Dr McCarthy said she was very proud to receive the award and showcase her project.

“To have something that has worked so well, and to deliver that research to the industry, it’s just a perfect story. This award is like the cherry on top,” she said.

Learn more about the research by the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Agricultural Engineering.

Learn more about AgriFutures Australia’s Chicken Meat Program.

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