An Inside Look at the Global Effort to Keep Ag Robotics Safe
The association representing the European agricultural machinery industry (CEMA), the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), and other players worldwide are working together to ensure the latest autonomous technologies are fit for the farm.
The path to full autonomy is a challenging one to navigate in any industry. The agriculture sector, however, has its own set of unique complexities. Certain needs conflict with others.
For example, farming equipment must be able to avoid certain objects, such as workers or animals in the field, while interacting with others, like weeds, grains and fruit ripe for picking. Add onto this the number of sensors required for machines to “see” and the communications systems that ensure operators are informed of potential errors or obstacles, and it’s easy to understand the need for a unified set of safety standards and risk assessment procedures.
he associations tasked with cultivating these standards certainly have their work cut out for them. A lack of well-developed international standards complicates companies’ efforts to sell abroad. Alternatively, robust standards help manufacturers develop equipment suitable for all markets.
Today, agricultural robotics are generally built for the specialty crops and greenhouse markets. These machines tend to be smaller, more flexible, and easier to update when something malfunctions. While larger machines do have advanced technologies, they are limited by safety concerns and the risk of potential harm. Consequently, the big commodities markets are left with fewer options.
“Full autonomy is a very complex thing, and it makes these manufacturers a bit reluctant,” says Dr. Ivo Hostens, Technical Director at CEMA, the European association for the agricultural machinery industry. “That's also why we’re working on all these standards – to give these manufacturers a guidance to optimize the risk assessments for their autonomous machines and as a result increase their legal certainty.”
The Need for Global Safety Standards
As advancing technologies and new machinery and tools are developed around the world, there’s an increasing effort to get everyone on the same page. Or, at a bare minimum, speaking the same language.
“The first thing we needed to do when looking at the risk assessment was speak the same language because we were talking for almost a year, and we realized that we often had the same ideas but didn’t understand exactly what the other person meant with respect to specific terminology,” Hostens says. “The terminology was quite new, so we decided the first thing we should do is work together on having the same meaning of words, the same terminology.”
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) in the U.S. had come to a similar conclusion. Across the association’s many member groups, which encompass sectors like construction, mining, and forestry in addition to agriculture, it was essential that standards work was consistent to avoid doubling these efforts.
“We started the Autonomous Machines Coordinating Committee (AMCC), a forum outside of standards regulatory groups, where we could work on and discuss the technical concepts surrounding autonomy,” says Jeff Jurgens, Director Product Stewardships for AEM. “Because members of the groups work in and represent all off-road sectors, the opportunity this group brings is to offer very diverse perspectives. Our goals are to prevent duplication of standards and to leverage expertise where it's appropriate.”
The AMCC found, for instance, that there was a disagreement across the sectors about the levels of autonomy. In one sector a truck might be considered a level 2, whereas another group might label it a level 5. By putting the focus on terminology to start, members could agree on the language before working to combine existing standards and develop new ones.
Because collaboration and consensus will be essential parts of moving the industry closer to full autonomy, it’s imperative that organizations around the world share their input and expertise. One of the biggest threats to innovation occurs when manufacturers attempt to create in isolation. Agricultural machines will be sold in the international marketplace, which is why everyone is eager to have a place at the table whenever and wherever these decisions are being made.
“If one partner starts developing something, and it sets the bar, the other partners will have to accept that, so of course everybody wants to be included and to see that the standards are exactly what they need,” Hostens says. “A lot of our manufacturers want to work at a global level. We try to make the playing field level, so that we have a common understanding, not only across Europe but globally as well.”
Updating the Current Standards for Future Success
The push to develop global safety standards within CEMA began with a demand to further investigate the current standard, ISO 18497. This standard “specifies principles for the design of highly automated aspects of highly automated machines and vehicles (e.g. agricultural tractors, tractor implement systems, implements and self-propelled machinery) during agricultural field operations.” Many manufacturers, however, believed that ISO 18497 was too focused on large machines to be relevant to the smaller autonomous vehicles that dominate the agricultural robotics industry today.
“Once we started to make progress on standardizing the terminology used within the industry, we realized we could start revising the current 18497 standard,” Hostens says. “That standard was too much a mix between a basic standard and a more specialized standard. We decided that we should have a more general standard for companies to do a risk assessment and then, if there is a need to go more into special details or create something for dedicated operations or dedicated machinery, we could do that. Now, we have five parts in a revised 18497.”
At AEM, there’s a similar effort to evaluate, update, and disseminate information related to automated agricultural machines. With so many different organizations and initiatives dedicated to achieving the same goal, the association needed to create tools and processes to systematize the data collection and storage.
“We've built and launched a compliance database, which will help us put this information in a centralized storage area and organize it in a way that's easy for people to comprehend,” says Michael Pankonin, Senior Director, Safety and Product Leadership at AEM.
“This will also help consolidate a lot of the tribal knowledge that tends to exist in a lot of organizations,” added Jason Malcore, Director Global Standards and Compliance. “With the database in place, we can actually focus our efforts on prioritizing which standards the industry wants to support. Basically, we want to be proactive about addressing the issues that are coming down the pipe because they are coming and they're coming fast, and everyone is trying to figure out the exact same type of problems all at the same time in different ways.”
Ensuring Safe Solutions are Fit for the Farm
Through these varied efforts to maximize safety, the industry moves a little closer to understanding, adopting, and benefitting from agricultural robots and autonomous machines. Both CEMA and AEM realize the importance of continuing this work and promoting it to a wider audience. The resulting solutions depend on it.
“The main reason why many manufacturers have not come out with fully automated vehicle, is that they're not sure that their safety measures will suffice, what is the level to reach,” Hostens says. “I want to emphasize that we fully support the self-certification mechanism we have in the machinery directive, also for automated machinery. This approach allows the highest freedom to innovate without technical and administrative barriers and regardless of company size. We simply ask patience from legislators while we develop these standards.”
When manufacturers feel comfortable coping with the potential risks, they are free to innovate and develop the autonomous solutions that save farmers time and money. This will take time. Complex machines require continued collaboration. Fortunately, CEMA and AEM have found that even the marketplace’s fiercest competitors are willing to work together on product safety.
“Anytime something unfortunate happens, it hurts the whole industry,” Pankonin says. “So, I think most OEMs recognize that fact and want to come to the table to minimizerisks associated with the equipment across the board. When the equipment is used improperly, people can get hurt. No one wants to see that happen.”
First page photo caption: John Deere pull unit @AEM