The world’s first autonomous poultry robot gives farmers a new reason never to enter their barns

The poultry industry has automated rapidly in recent years. From cloud-based feeding systems that can monitor and calibrate chicken scratch in real time to hulking robo-butchers ready to debone a chicken breast in 2.5 seconds, there’s been an emphasis on replacing manual labor with ever-sleeker (and more expensive) technology.

Many of these machines are designed to do the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs—from the removal of built-up manure to the slaughter itself—allowing production and processing to move at a frenetic pace beyond anything flesh-and-blood people could accomplish. But a cute, French farm robot that debuted at last week’s SPACE conference is designed to displace human participation in a far more mundane aspect of the poultry business. It’s taking aim at the “walkthrough”: the way poultry growers might occasionally walk through their flocks, gently riling up the birds.  

A Tibot poultry robotTibot

The Tibot Spoutnic, the world’s first autonomous poultry-farming robot

As a species, chickens are somewhat given to inertia. And when you place them in the confines of the average industrial-scale growhouse, where a thousand birds or more are squeezed into a single barn with no outdoor access, they’re not likely to move around much. To give the chickens some exercise, poultry farmers will often walk through the crowded flock to check on things and force the birds to stretch their legs. Like people, birds that get more exercise tend to be healthier, and quality issues can arise when a flock gets too sedentary.

Enter the Tibot Spoutnic, a little wheeled gadget that roves through the henhouse all day and night, making sure nobody’s standing around for too long. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a chicken treadmill: As it trundles along the floor, emitting green light and a variety of odd noises, mildly freaked-out birds back away slowly, burning calories in the process.

According to Tibot’s website, the Spoutnic “produces light and sound stimuli which prevent the birds from developing any habituation to the presence of the robot,” varying its behavior enough so that birds never quite grow accustomed to it. It’s smart enough to navigate around the many obstacles it might encounter on the floor of a growhouse—”wall, nest, hopper base, dead chicken,” according to Tibot, and has a washable exterior that’s probably going to come in handy.

Tibot SpoutnikTibot

In addition to being useful in commercial poultry meat production, the company says it’s also seen success in the egg-laying industry. Tibot’s founders, Laetitia and Benoît Savary, invented the Spoutnic to help solve the “floor eggs”—when birds lay not in their assigned nest area, but on the ground—that continually plagued their operation in Mayenne, France. Floor eggs that aren’t gathered by human workers tend to be wasted, so it’s a problem that takes time and requires a lot of stooping. Supposedly, the Spoutnic “trains” birds to lay in their nest coops by making them too uneasy to lay on the floor. According to the company, a constantly-patrolling Spoutnic leads to a 23 percent reduction in floor eggs.

The company says using Tibot can result in half as many walkthroughs, an activity it calls “a tiring task that often encroaches on [the farmer’s] private life.” If it works as well as its inventors say, the walkthrough may become a thing of the past—just one more gadget distancing farmers from the animals they raise, as human beings continue to invent their way out of agriculture.

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.