Farmers are aging but the population is expanding. We need to cultivate new lands, but we can barely look after the fields currently in use. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Australia, where the average age of farmers is 52, and vast lands remain untapped. So now a team of researchers at the University of Sydney is developing robotic vehicles that will be able to tend to cattle in the field, reducing the need for cowboys or cattlemen to monitor and guard the herds.

The ATV-like machines work and analyze cattle autonomously, only notifying farmers back home when the herd requires human intervention. The ambitious proposal has its detractors, who claim that the study of cattle will always call on a subtle human mind to detect tiny perturbations in behavior that may signal an animal getting sick, like a steer that neglects to stretch when rising. But for tracking whether the herd needs to move to fresher pastures and guarding the valuable animals in the middle of the night, robots have clearly shown their potential.

RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application) scans fields and kills just the weeds.  

It turns out that despite the romantic imagery of the cowboy sitting atop a horse contentedly gazing out across the miles of open prairie, the work can be tedious and unappealing to a younger generation that abhors a wifi dead zone. So the turn to robotics in agriculture may be less a function of the need to cut prices, as in the manufacturing industry, than the need to find someone or something to just do the work as well as possible.

“It’s 110 degrees and you’re wearing a coat and bull-hide leggings and no air gets through,” Texas cattleman Pete Bonds, a former president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association told The Washington Post. “Getting a good enough man to be able to go through that brush and take it, there’s not any of them left.”

Drones have also gained attention as possible field hands. Infrared video on a drone can help spot a missing cow or pinpoint a herd on the move, but in general the autonomous vehicles pose a more existential threat to the revered cowboy. Even if robots and cowboys can learn to coexist, some fear that the entrance of Silicon Valley-tech into the traditionally naturalistic field of agriculture will isolate potential cowboys even more. Classic Westerns portray the cowboy, his horse, and his wits against the elements.

“A lot of times it’s the therapeutic side of what they do, going to check on their cattle,” Tyler Dupy, executive director of Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, told The Post. “If you inject robots into the mix, then they wouldn’t have any interest in doing it anymore.