Pig expressions studied with face recognition

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Face recognition technology is being used in an attempt to detect different emotional states in pigs.

Machine vision experts at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) have teamed up with animal behaviourists from Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) in Edinburgh for the study, which it is hoped will lead to a tool that can monitor individual animals' faces and alert farmers to any health and welfare problems.

SRUC research has shown that pigs can signal their intentions to other pigs using expressions. There is also evidence of different expressions when they are in pain or under stress.

At SRUC's Pig Research Centre in Midlothian, scientists are capturing 3D and 2D images of the faces of breeding sows under normal situations that might result in different emotional states. After feeding, for example, sows appear calm and content, and it is hoped this mood is reflected in their expression. Also, if sows experience lameness, the technique will try and detect a difference in expression before and after the pig is given pain relief.

Images are then processed at UWE Bristol's Centre for Machine Vision, where various machine learning techniques are being developed to identify different emotions conveyed by particular expressions.

The team then hopes to develop the technology for on-farm use with commercial partners where individual sows in large herds will be monitored.

Professor Melvyn Smith from UWE Bristol's Centre for Machine Vision, part of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said: ‘Machine vision technology offers the potential to realise a low-cost, non-intrusive and practical means to biometrically identify individual animals on the farm. Our work has already demonstrated 97 per cent accuracy at facial recognition in pigs. Our next step will be, for the first time, to explore the potential for using machine vision to automatically recognise facial expressions that are linked with core emotion states, such as happiness or distress, in the identified pigs.’

The Centre for Machine Vision has also been working with dairy consultancy, Kingshay, to develop imaging technology to monitor dairy cows when they leave the milking parlour, in order to improve their welfare and productivity. (Keely Portway wrote about the system in our February/March issue.)

Dr Emma Baxter from SRUC said: ‘Early identification of pig health issues gives farmers the potential to improve animal wellbeing by tackling any problems quickly and implementing tailored treatment for individuals. This will reduce production costs by preventing impact of health issues on performance.

‘By focussing on the pig's face, we hope to deliver a truly animal-centric welfare assessment technique, where the animal can "tell" us how it feels about its own individual experiences and environment. This allows insight into both short-term emotional reactions and long-term individual moods of animals under our care.’

The study, which is being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is also being supported by industry stakeholders JSR Genetics and Garth Pig Practice, as well as precision livestock specialists Agsenze.

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