PFI: AIR-TT: Automating Animal Welfare Tasks to Improve Animal Health and Human Wellbeing
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This PFI: AIR Technology Translation project focuses on using research on the benefits of positive reinforcement training to create a digital system that improves animal wellbeing while automating tasks related to common types of animal care. This digital enrichment system is important because animal husbandry, especially tasks related to animal welfare, take a great deal of caretaker time, money, and effort that can cause caretaker burnout. Contented animals are important to multiple industries: research animals undergo significant physiological and behavioral shifts under stress, which biases scientific studies; contented farm animals have increased immune function and need less medication; conservation breeding of endangered species depends on healthy breeding animals; and ease in pet keeping encourages the health benefits of pet ownership. The project will result in a manufacture ready prototype for use with parrots that has the following features: it will offer toys and food items on a preprogramed schedule, track and log bird behavior, and run interactive "apps" that provide rewards for cognitive thinking challenges, exercise, and natural behavior expression. Parrots are an unusual group of animals, as they exist simultaneously in endangered conservation breeding, pet ownership, commercial pet breeding, and research laboratories. This proposed digital enrichment system''s ability to provide many different types of stimuli at a cost of ~$300 per unit provides many advantagesÂ when compared to the $3,000-8,000 systems that exist the laboratory market and perform only limited husbandry tasks. There are basically no similar items in this primary market space, the companion bird market. Current state of the art in the market space for other species are items like monkey restraint chairs with levels and light panels, enriched poultry confinement cages (dust bath, perches, nest), and low functionality single species dog or cat products such as the iCPooch feeder. This project addresses the following technology gaps as it translates from research discovery to commercial application. The complex actions and decisions made by positive reinforcement trainers must become a set of programmed instructions carried out by the app. The system requires specialized low processing power computer vision, and computer hearing that work in a variety of environments and for a variety of species. The technology must seamlessly integrate into the home of the animal, be low maintenance, replace person-hours of work, and be based on the best behavioral science. These needs will be addressed by multidisciplinary teams of animal trainers, ornithologists, computer vision experts, computer programmers, and engineers working in the lab and aviary to create software and hardware combinations that overcome these technology gaps. The animal health and outcomes monitored will include immune function, body condition, bone density, and expression of natural behaviors. During development, the project will explore crossover applications for zoo and agricultural applications as appropriate. In addition, the project leaders will work with undergraduate and graduate students to provide them with hands-on experience working with industry partners and developing products for commercial applications. The project engages three important partners in this technology translation effort: The Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center (a research center with 150 publications on bird health), Hill Country Aviaries (housing and breeding about 2,000 birds of 60 species), and Chris Biro (a bird show owner who provides online training courses and engages several hundred thousand people in outreach annually). This team will provide the researchers with the environment for joint development, pilot testing, customer outreach, and guided commercialization to help transform this research discovery into commercial reality.