Le 02/05/2024

A Synthesis of the 1st International Agricultural Autonomy Symposium’s Workshops

World FIRA 2024 marked a milestone for the global agricultural robotics community by hosting the inaugural International Agricultural Autonomy Symposium. On February 8, 2024, stakeholders such as users, manufacturers, and representatives from unions and associations dedicated to autonomy and safety convened for a day of collaborative discussions, thoughtful reflections, and focused work.

This event, supported by AXEMA and Le Grand Défi de la Robotique Agricole, featured three workshops. These sessions brought together representatives and spokespeople from international organizations involved in the field, manufacturers of autonomous machines, and, notably, farmer-users who engaged in meaningful dialogues with manufacturers and legislators to address the impending challenges in agricultural autonomy.

Over the past decade, safety has emerged as a paramount concern for manufacturers and users alike since the inception of robots in agricultural settings. Robotics companies have diligently collaborated with cutting-edge technologies to mitigate potential human-related issues associated with autonomous vehicles. This prompts critical questions about the safety of autonomous vehicles in farming operations and the well-being of farm employees. Additionally, an exploration of the current legislative landscape is essential to gauge the regulatory framework surrounding this evolving technology.

WORKSHOP 1: Field use cases, farmers' and manufacturers' experience

Credits @SPKTR

The inaugural workshop of the International Agricultural Autonomy Symposium was designed to gather and comprehend key insights from the field. By featuring testimonials from both farmers and manufacturers, the objective was to gain a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and inquiries related to autonomy. Additionally, the workshop sought to shed light on how manufacturers are actively addressing these pertinent issues.

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WORKSHOP 2: Recommendations and application guidelines

Credits @SPKTR

The second workshop of the International Agricultural Autonomy Symposium, which aimed to showcase ongoing efforts in compliance and regulation in Europe and worldwide, took place. Delving into the intricacies, the workshop explored how governments, syndicates, and associations collaborated to establish optimal regulatory frameworks for the advancement of agricultural robots.

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WORKSHOP 3: Collective intelligence to serve agricultural autonomy challenges

“The Collective Intelligence to Serve Agricultural Autonomy Challenges” brought together a wide range of experts to discuss appropriation and farm organization.

If you were to ask someone about World FIRA, the feedback you’d inevitably get about the event wouldn’t focus on the impressive robotic demonstrations or the top-tier programming. Although these elements are always instructive, the main thing attendees will almost always tell you is that the real value is in the people you meet.

During the International Agricultural Autonomy Symposium, participants had an additional opportunity to collaborate and connect in the final workshop. “The Collective Intelligence to Serve Agricultural Autonomy Challenges” was designed to bring people with a wide range of expertise and experience together to discuss some of the most pressing issues in the agtech industry.

From a list of 10 potential topics, the participants were separated into two groups and given a single topic to discuss. The first group talked about farm organization, and the second discussed appropriation.

In the farm organization group, the interactive portion of the workshop focused on a conversation about how to go from zero robots on an operation to full or nearly full autonomy. The group considered what preparations and alterations a producer might need to make to create an environment that was receptive to automation. A number of important points were mentioned in the summary section of the workshop when everyone came together to share their findings.

The first point was that before a farmer even considers bringing autonomous robots onto the operation, they are doing their research about what it would require. This might look like attending events, watching demos and talking to manufacturers. They gather the data they need to make an informed decision.

After this decision is made, the farmer will need to choose which tasks to automate using the new machine. This is where the infrastructure changes begin. The group gave the example of how a plantation’s layout might need to shift to accommodate the machine’s planned trajectory around the fields. Another example is that electric machines will need to recharge at certain points, so it might be in a farmer’s best interest to set up specific charging stations where this can happen without interrupting the overall workflow.

Once the robots are operational on the farm, the workers will be impacted. A dwindling labor force is often the reason farmers turn to robots, however, the workers who are available will likely see their jobs change. Instead of manually completing the tasks that a robot can do autonomously, workers will focus on other jobs. They may even transition to operators who will need to uplevel their skill sets to be able to manage the more technologically advanced machines.

With the right labor force in place, operations can begin to focus on maximizing the value robots bring to the production process. This “software-enabled farming” empowers producers to arrange their operations in such a way that all machines and people can work symbiotically. This eliminates overlap of tasks and ensures that everything that needs to be done is accomplished in the most efficient way.

The group also discussed why it might be beneficial to have a data scientist on staff. This individual would be able to translate the data from the machines into useful information that could help the farmer to make educated decisions about how to better automate the current tasks.

In conclusion, the group mentioned that sustainability considerations should be examined as well. Farmers have the goal of being able to feed the world’s growing population, the group noted, so the process of bringing new machines and new practices onto the operation should be done in a way that is sustainable in practice.

These robots will change the way food is produced in the same way the introduction of tractors changed the industry long ago. Many of the traditional machines and some of today’s robots, however, contribute to soil compaction. This is an example of a challenge farmers will want to pay attention to when they introduce a robot onto their operation. They will want to choose lighter robots to avoid the negative impacts or design a way of working that limits how the soil is affected.

The group focused on appropriation looked at how robots and autonomous machines are often perceived as complicated, complex and hard to operate. Their discussion resulted in four points about how these perceptions could be overcome. These points centered on the robots’ interfaces, education, data transparency and safety.

With respect to the interfaces, the group emphasized that the technologies needed to be simple to operate. Robots with convoluted programs are not likely to be used. Farmers have grown accustomed to using their current machines, and the desire to bring something new onto the operation will wane if the robots require a steep learning curve.

Along this same line, there needs to be additional education to help the current labor force and the next generation of workers understand how to operate these technologies. The group suggested having robotics classes in school that help to teach children the skills they will need to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

The third point was about the need for farmers to own the data they collect from their autonomous machines. Manufacturers need to be transparent about data ownership as well. Taken together, data ownership and transparency are more likely to motivate farmers to adopt robots on their operations. When the ethics are murky, operations will err on the side of caution and stick to the devils they know.

A final point was made about safety. Workers, potential bystanders and robots need to be able to coexist without making the job more dangerous for everyone involved. When the industry can demonstrate that using robots is safe, more operators can be convinced to welcome them onto their farms.

The second group also shared a small debate they had about how much training and knowledge an operator should need to have about the robots they are working with. Some members of the group equated the understanding to that of having a driver’s license. Although many people are trained to be able to operate a car, far fewer people know the intricacies of how a car runs or how to fix it when it breaks down.

Others in the group argued that farmers need to be slightly more informed than the bare minimum. They believed that the operators should be able to identify when something was wrong and be able to troubleshoot if the robot’s parameters were simply off or the machine would need mechanical repairs. Similarly, the farmer should know how to turn off a machine when it is acting wonky and whether it is safe to run it again after tinkering with the settings.

In conclusion, the conversation turned to early adopters and those who are ready to accept new technologies. The group believed that bringing the farm into the design and development process would be an effective means of earning trust. Those who could participate in the creation of the new technologies might be more keen to integrate them onto the farm once they hit the market.

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  • Karli Petrovic
    Essayist at KPwrites.com