NI academic awarded £250,000 to use crowd-tracking technology to improve broiler welfare

Academics from Queen’s University Belfast have been awarded $311,000 (£252,000) to use video-based crowd-tracking technology typically used to monitor human crowds to improve the welfare of broilers.

The money was awarded by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and McDonald’s as part of Phase 1 of the SMART Broiler programme.

Prof. Niamh O’Connell, from the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast, is one of six recipients to be funded in the round.

Prof. O’Connell will work jointly on this project with world-leading experts in video analytic techniques, based at the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) at Queen’s.

A total of $4 million in grants and technical support will be awarded as part of SMART Broiler to develop automated monitoring tools that can assess chicken welfare.

Working in partnership with Northern Ireland poultry producer Moy Park, Prof. O’Connell will use the money to take a video-based system based on the latest crowd analysis research and apply it to the tracking and behavioural analysis of a flock of chickens.

This will enable researchers to monitor large numbers of birds, track their activity patterns and gather welfare indicators such as gait, feather cleanliness and incidents of play behaviour.

Speaking about the award, Prof. O’Connell said: “We are delighted to receive this research funding. Using vision-based technologies to monitor animal behaviour offers enormous opportunities to the agri-food sector.

“Working with Moy Park, this project will trial the technology with poultry, and will help us better understand how the birds engage with their environment and each other. We’re particularly interested in indicators of positive emotion or ‘happiness’ – such as play.”

Prof. O’Connell conducts farm animal health and welfare research and has specific expertise in applied, on-farm work.

One of her research themes focuses on the welfare of poultry, and in particular, on helping to design optimum housing environments for farmed chickens.

Dr. Paul Miller, research director of security intelligence at the ECIT Institute, said: “We are delighted to get involved in a new multi-disciplinary research effort which brings together the animal behavioural scientists in IGFS with the technologists working in ECIT.

Our video analytics research has been focused on enhancing the resilience of large crowds of people found in, for example, a sports stadium or a railway station. Now we will adapt our work to understand the behaviour of a flock of birds.

“This will be very challenging, but the insights gathered will enable Prof. O’Connell’s team to design better environments for rearing birds.”

Ursula Lavery, technical and research and development director Europe at Moy Park, said: “We are passionate about understanding our birds even more and are excited to continue our work in partnership with Prof. O’Connell and the QUB team.

“This project offers the potential to really bring a step-change in how we measure the positive welfare indicators of our birds.”

Current methods for assessing chicken welfare on-farm often rely on human observation, which may be subjective and result in delayed intervention. SMART Broiler is developing automated sensors, monitoring, analysis and reporting technologies to objectively and comprehensively assess welfare worldwide.

FFAR’s executive director Dr. Sally Rockey, said: “FFAR was impressed by the calibre of the more than 40 SMART Broiler proposals we received from 11 countries, which underscores the global importance of this issue.

“Producers and consumers alike are eager to address animal welfare concerns. This initiative seeks to remedy these concerns by developing technologies that provide consistent, timely and accurate welfare assessments on farms around the world.”