The connected farm - how to harvest the benefits of autonomy and robotics

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The rising costs and reduced availability of labour are key concerns in the agribusiness sector. Are automation and robotics the long term solutions to these problems?

The rising costs and reduced availability of labour are key concerns in the agribusiness sector. Automation and robotics are seen as the long term solution to these problems, as discussed in our companion article Robots v seasonal workers: a new fix for an old problem?

Technology businesses and academic researchers are meeting the challenge head-on, with a range of exciting projects offering rapid progress towards increasing automation in the field. But some are advising caution. IT billionaire Bill Gates recently called for a tax on robots to replace the income generated by employment. Are you aware of the legal risks and plans for change that may impact farming’s tech transformation?

A world first in automated farming

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, is well on the way to its first crop. With support from Innovate UK and industry sponsors, the team uses a combination of drone imaging technology, robotics and autonomous vehicles, stitching it together into an integrated system.

Cereal farming isn’t the only area receiving attention. Cambridgeshire-based Dogtooth is developing a robotic strawberry-picker that can work tirelessly day and night. Israel-based FFRobotics and Californian company Abundant Robotics are also working on robotic fruit-picking machinery. FFRobotics uses three-fingered grabbing arms, while Abundant Robotics, boosted by a high profile $10 million funding round, aims to deploy suction technology on a self-driving vehicle.

At the moment, the focus is firmly on the technology. Will it work effectively? Will it save money? But the legal and ethical considerations around using robots and autonomy are beginning to crystallise as the applications of these technologies proliferate. How will these impact on agribusiness?

The regulatory landscape

Two aspects of autonomous agritech are already attracting the attention of regulators - autonomous vehicles and drones - and others are close behind.

Autonomous vehicles

Increasing autonomy in road transport has sparked heated debate. The obvious danger to vehicle occupants and other road users, means that close oversight and regulation is inevitable. The march to market, with promises of full autonomy in 2020 or 2021, has regulators running to keep up.

Many of the difficult questions that arise in relation to driverless vehicles will be less of an issue in an agricultural context. There will not be the same risk of harm as with fast-moving vehicles used by and among consumers. 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 ignore non-road use, one example being the EU’s 2016 Amsterdam Declaration.

In the UK, the Department for Transport’s code of practice for testing driverless cars also 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.

Drones

Drone use is already tightly regulated and tougher rules are in the pipeline. Drones attract particular attention because of the dangers to aviation. Reports of near misses are increasing. In July, runways at Gatwick airport had to be closed when a drone was spotted nearby.

More direct danger to the public is also a concern, especially with larger and heavier drones, and camera-carrying drones are subject to privacy law. In the UK, all drone users are required to follow rules and restrictions on use. Specified activities require a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority, and very large drones are directly regulated by EU aviation law.

The UK is planning tighter rules, including the introduction of a user test and a registration scheme for all but the smallest drones. And European regulation is under review, with a consultation by the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, over a new regime applied consistently across the EU. The UK intends to apply this regime, at least initially, although this may change post-Brexit.

A separate legal regime for robots and AI?

A recent European Parliament analysis of robotics called for specific legislation and oversight for robots and artificial intelligence. While it makes interesting reading, this is unlikely to lead to the unified approach MEPs wanted. The EU Commission currently seems unwilling to regulate robotics in isolation. So a piecemeal approach is likely to continue for now.

What if someone gets hurt?

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 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 such a situation as this, it can be very difficult to fix responsibility on one part of the chain.

And where a landowner has acquired automated technology, who will be responsible for its responsible use, ongoing upkeep and safety? Manufacturers could find themselves liable to injured claimants due to defects in their technology that would have been fixed if the owner had applied the latest system updates.

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.

Who owns and controls the collected data?

As it becomes more advanced autonomous farming is likely to 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. While the details of data ownership as between suppliers and users will be the subject of commercial agreements, it will be difficult for users to negotiate individual terms especially with leading suppliers.

This could generate two problems. First, system users may find themselves unable to transfer to a new supplier without losing access to collected information about their previous activities. Second, 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.

Will agriculture become vulnerable to hackers?

In our increasingly connected world cybersecurity is a big issue. The recent WannaCry cyberattack by unknown hackers hit the headlines when it caused havoc in hospitals around the world, preventing key machinery and management systems from working.

The UK government is currently consulting on a new framework for cybersecurity in our essential services. But while they target operators involved in providing water, energy, transport, health and digital services, these proposals say 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.

Connected and autonomous farms will have to face up to cyberthreats in the same way as other businesses. They will need to follow practices and procedures to maximise security and plan for how they will respond to an incident, such as that outlined in guidance offered by the National Cyber Security Centre.

And as agribusiness becomes increasingly automated it may well become the focus of government regulation alongside other essential services, with specific oversight of the measures used to address cyber threats.

A fast-changing scene

These are some of the legal risks and regulatory requirements facing connected and autonomous farming as it grows and develops. The scene is changing fast and developers and users of the technology will need to ensure that they keep on top of their evolving risks and responsibilities.

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