Robots, drones and driverless tractors – what’s the future for agribusiness?

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One of the big issues facing agribusiness and food producers right now is the squeeze on labour. With Brexit just around the corner, fewer migrant workers are making the move to the UK. And the political climate across Europe and in the US favours tough controls on immigration. Can food growers and producers look to innovative technology to help fill the gap?

One of the big issues facing agribusiness and food producers right now is the squeeze on labour. With Brexit just around the corner, fewer migrant workers are making the move to the UK. And the political climate across Europe and in the US favours tough controls on immigration. Can food growers and producers look to innovative technology to help fill the gap?

Growth technologies

In October 2016 Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions Ltd announced a “world first” – their "Hands Free Hectare" project, to farm a hectare to harvest without stepping into the field. With support from Innovate UK and industry sponsors, the team used a combination of drone imaging technology, robotics and autonomous vehicles, stitching it together into an integrated system. Award-winning success with the initial crop of spring barley is being followed up with a hectare of winter wheat. 

Other approaches use swarm robots to achieve precision farming. The SAGA project, supported by EU research funding through the ECHORD++ project, is experimenting with drone swarms to monitor a sugar beet field for the presence of weeds. Israel-based Skyx deploys drone swarms for autonomous spraying operations offering greater precision and control with reduced chemical use. Fendt’s Xaver is a small, battery-operated, ground-based robot currently being trialled for use in seed-planting swarms.

Fruits of research

Harvesting delicate produce like fruit and vegetables presents a different set of challenges. Creating a robot that can recognise and collect suitable produce without damaging it is difficult. Cambridge-based technology start-up Dogtooth uses robots that move autonomously along crop rows, not only picking ripe fruit, but also grading picked berries and sorting them into punnets. Belgian company Octinion is conducting field trials of its robotic strawberry picking technology this summer. Octinion’s robots use 3D vision and picking technology mounted on an autonomous trolley. 

Robots like these promise 24-hour harvesting at peak times. Night-time picking in cooler conditions may offer products with a longer shelf life. They can also collect data for precision crop management. 

Advantages promised by technologies like these include less soil compaction, greater precision meaning lower inputs, round-the-clock activity and, importantly, reduced need for labour.

For now, the focus is firmly on the technology. Will it work effectively? Will it save money? How long will it take to recoup the initial investment? But the legal and ethical considerations around using robots and autonomy are beginning to crystallise as the applications of these technologies proliferate. We take a look at how will these impact on agribusiness.

The legal landscape

Agritech deploys a range of innovative technologies. Developments in law and policy will affect these in different ways. Although food and agri use cases are not the main focus for policymakers, they will not escape developments in regulation.

Autonomous vehicles

Increasing autonomy in road transport has sparked heated debate and close scrutiny from legislators. The obvious danger to vehicle occupants and other road users, means that close oversight and regulation is inevitable. 

Autonomous road vehicles present issues for legislators that are less acute in an agricultural context. Rural operation on private land does not present the same risk of harm as with fast-moving vehicles used by and among consumers. And data privacy law, relating to the collection and use of data about individual users, is less relevant. But there remains the possibility of serious harm being caused to operators, other workers and members of the public by driverless agricultural machinery. Often policy initiatives simply ignore non-road use, one example being the EU’s 2016 Amsterdam Declaration, but we expect much of the developing legislation in this area to apply to agribusiness.

For example, the UK Department for Transport’s code of practice for testing driverless cars focuses on vehicles in operation on public roads. However, it applies to other vehicle types where these will be tested in public places, and advises testers of technology in areas not accessible to the public to consider whether the guidelines are applicable to their situation. The planned Automated and Electric Vehicles Act will extend beyond cars to any machinery classified as “automated vehicles” by the Government that might operate either on roads or in other public places.

Drones

Drone use is already tightly regulated. Drones attract particular attention because of the dangers to aviation. Risk of direct injury and damage is also a concern, especially with larger and heavier drones. In 2017, runways at Gatwick airport had to be closed when a drone was spotted nearby, and an autonomous drone collided with a crane in a survey of a construction site

Changes to the Air Navigation Order 2016 recently introduced new obligations around drone pilot competency and certification. Camera-carrying drones are subject to privacy law, and images of individuals, even if recorded accidentally, will need to be managed in compliance with personal data laws. 

Even with this existing tight framework, we can expect to see larger and commercially operated drones subject to increasing controls. Regulations currently work on the basis of an eyes-on drone pilot, and AI-controlled drone swarms will present even greater challenges. Manufacturers and users will need to demonstrate to aviation regulators that that they can be safely deployed.

Robots and AI

So far specific rules for AI and robotics remain a matter for discussion. Concerns around the priorities that the technology is programmed to follow and whether unforeseen and uncontrolled activity will be generated have generated a lot of interest but not yet led to a clear framework. A recent European Parliament analysis of robotics called for specific legislation and oversight for robots and artificial intelligence. The issue has reached the agenda of the G7 and we can expect to see increasing efforts to agree an international approach.

Connected systems

If a product is faulty and causes damage, a victim would normally have a claim against the manufacturer or seller of the product. But when we get to connected technology systems things can become more complicated. 

Imagine the scenario. An automated tractor spraying a crop is controlled remotely by a system that uses GPS data together with information about the crop collected using drone technology. The tractor fails to turn in the correct place, crashes through the field boundary and onto a public road, causing an accident. In a situation like this it can be difficult to fix responsibility on one part of the chain. 

The UK is addressing some of these risks in relation to driverless cars, with catch-all insurance proposed to ensure that an injured person will not fall into the gaps. But less attention is currently being paid to other connected and autonomous systems, leaving manufacturers, owners and users exposed to unknown risks.

Big data and machine learning

Autonomous farming will rely increasingly on the collection of data to improve future products and services. It may become possible to make use of machine learning to generate advances in “skills” of robots. Data of this kind will be a valuable resource. Suppliers of these systems are likely to seek to retain ownership of collected data, and it will be difficult for users to negotiate individual terms, especially with leading suppliers. 

System users may find themselves unable to transfer to a new supplier without losing access to collected information about their previous activities. And users may find themselves called on to pay more for enhanced services which their own data have helped to build. 

A situation could develop where a small number of market leading technology suppliers gain increasing dominance, and users find it difficult to switch to an alternative.

Cybersecurity and hacking

In our increasingly connected world cybersecurity is a big issue. The 2017 WannaCry and Petya cyberattacks caused havoc in businesses and public institutions around the world, preventing key machinery and management systems from working. 

A new framework for cybersecurity in essential services has recently been introduced across the EU. But while it targets operators involved in providing water, energy, transport, health and digital services, this legislation says nothing about food supply. When cyber threats strike in a connected world, being low-tech can offer an advantage. But as agribusiness becomes increasingly automated, and increasingly connected, exposure to cyber threats will only increase. 

Alongside fast-moving technology developments, the legal scene is changing fast. Developers and users of the technology will need to keep track of these changes to ensure that they keep on top of their evolving risks and responsibilities.

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