FACIAL recognition technology is being used in an attempt to improve the health and welfare of pigs by detecting their different emotional states.

Animal behaviourists from Scotland’s Rural College in Edinburgh have teamed up with machine vision experts at the University of the West of England in Bristol for the study, to work towards the creation of a tool that can monitor individual animals’ faces to provide early notice of problems.

Pigs are highly expressive and previous research has shown that they can signal their intentions to other pigs using different facial 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 now capturing 3D and 2D facial images of the breeding sow population under various, typical commercial situations that are likely to result in different emotional states. For example, sows can experience lameness and could show different facial expressions relating to pain before and after being given pain relief.

Detecting a positive emotional state, as opposed to a stressed one, is a more novel notion – but sows are 'highly food motivated' and appear calm and content when satiated, so researchers are looking to such moments to build an idea of what happiness looks like reflected in sows’ facial expressions.

Images are then processed at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Machine Vision, where various state-of-the-art machine learning techniques are being developed to automatically identify different emotions conveyed by particular facial expressions. After validating these techniques, the team will develop the technology for on-farm use with commercial partners, in theory allowing individual sows in large herds to be monitored continuously.

Professor Melvyn Smith from the Centre for Machine Vision, which is 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 a 97% 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.”

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, is also being supported by industry 'stakeholders' JSR Genetics Ltd and Garth Pig Practice, as well as precision livestock specialists Agsenze.