Robot lawn mowers could soon feature facial recognition technology to ensure they do not run over and kill hedgehogs, conservationists have suggested.
Dr Sophie Lund Rasmussen has built hedgehog crash test dummies to see if the machines are safe and found the animals are often endangered by the whirring blades because the technology cannot detect them.
The sensors and cameras are typically too weak to detect hedgehogs hidden in the grass and data show body size and position has little impact on preventing a collision with the mowers.
The automatic, computer-controlled mowers are more dangerous to hedgehogs than human-powered machines because a person would likely see the animal and stop.
Dr Rasmussen, a member of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, has developed a standardised test which she hopes will be adopted by manufacturers to ensure all mowers are hedgehog-safe.
“This will eventually allow for a labelling system guiding the consumers into buying hedgehog friendly robotic lawn mowers, and thereby contribute to the conservation of this declining and beloved species,” she told The Telegraph.Imp
Her work, published in the journal Animals and presented at a hedgehog conference this weekend at Hartpury University, suggests that these deadly machines need better sensors to spot the animals and pivot blades to minimise harm.
Dr Rasmussen added: “The next step is definitely also to apply state-of-the-art technology such as camera recognition, which will eventually allow the robotic lawn mowers to detect hedgehogs at a distance, and avoid them.”
She tested 19 different types of robotic lawn mower which are available to buy and found some models were safer for small hogs than others.
“We found that models of robotic lawn mowers like Husqvarna Automower 450X and Husqvarna Automower Aspire R4 and Stihl iMOW 7 were least harmful to hedgehogs,” she added.
“However, all of these mowers had to physically interact with the dead hedgehog to detect it before they changed direction. Our goal for future machines is that they detect the hedgehog at a distance and change direction.
“For now the best advice is to check the lawn for any hedgehogs before starting the robotic lawn mower and to only let it run during the day, as this reduces the risk of encounters with hedgehogs, which are primarily nocturnal animals.”
The scientist is now investigating the possibility of using hedgehog dummies, not frozen carcasses, as part of her test; establishing the hedgehog test as standard practice; and also creating a labelling system for those that are hedgehog approved.
Manufacturers Stihl and Husqvarna are in discussions about creating and adopting such a label, she told The Telegraph.
Stihl and Husqvarna were approached for comment.