From operating rooms to car manufacturing plants, robots have made monotonous, difficult and dangerous tasks infinitely faster, easier and safer. The rise of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies have resulted in major changes across a wide range of industries. Included in the list of disrupted business sectors is one of the world’s oldest: farming.
The latest agricultural technologies have presented a lot of perks. Picking, weeding and spraying robots afford farmers new opportunities to fight against rising labor and inputs costs, all while improving worker safety and quality of life. Many growing operations are eager to employ these autonomous machines, but are they prepared to take on the risks?
There are many legal and ethical issues that need to be considered before bringing self-driving tractors and other new technologies onto the farm. Ahead of their talk at the FIRA International Forum of Agricultural Robotics in December 2020, Christophe Gossard, John Deere Strategic Standards Manager for Europe, and Andrea Bertolini, an attorney specializing in robotics, explore the big-picture implications of putting these machines to work.
Considering Product Safety
One of the main concerns surrounding the introduction of autonomous technologies centers on safety. Self-driving tractors need to be able to move around the field without putting human laborers at risk. In this case, there are several frameworks in place that address this matter.
“Today, in Europe the New Legislative Framework is an asset for the mechanical industry,” Gossard says. “Through self-certification and compliance to essential requirements supported by harmonized standards, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) are capable to offer to the users safe and reliable equipment. One of the major cornerstones in this eco-system is the Machinery Directive (2006/42/EC).”
While this framework may need to be updated or revised to include new advancements like Internet of Things (IoT) devices, remote control systems and autonomous vehicles, industry leaders are asking the right questions. In many ways, this isn’t an entirely new frontier.
“The mechanisms associated with the Essential Health and Safety Requirements and harmonized standards help to maintain high safety and security requirements and, at the same time, protect the manufacturer against potential litigations,” says Gossard, noting that this framework protects consumers from unsafe products by creating rules around product conformity. “Ethics surrounding driverless tractors should be supported by this framework.”
Considering the Law
Just as government agencies create regulations that dictate the standards for pesticide usage and greenhouse gas emissions, policy makers will need to develop laws that address issues related to agricultural technologies. This isn’t as straightforward as it may sound.
According to Bertolini, even the notion of autonomy requires critical thinking. Legally, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. This makes sense when examining an autonomous vacuum like the Roomba.
“The Roomba is autonomous, but it doesn’t trigger any legal or ethical issues,” Bertolini says. “The laws that we have today are very well-equipped to handle the autonomous vacuum cleaner. When it gets to driverless cars, it is an entirely different business. They operate in the public space. It’s not really about the autonomous dimension alone; it is about autonomous dimension in the public space that is a game-changer.”
Autonomous tractors may seem similar to self-driving cars, but they too require unique solutions. Bertolini says it is tempting to try to regulate all technologies based on their corresponding buzzwords, such as “autonomous” or “artificial intelligence.” Policy makers need to be more sophisticated
“I would not try to regulate autonomous tractors in the same way that I would regulate autonomous vehicles,” Bertolini says. “I think there are some technological differences, but there are also some objective differences: where are these things being used, by whom are they being used, how sophisticated and trained could or should the user be, what is the setting, what are the objective risks that matter? You cannot focus on the word ‘autonomous’ and regulate these things the same way.”
As farmers and other agricultural professionals invest in autonomous technologies, the conversation has shifted from creation to implementation. Robots are already available for purchase, and although autonomous tractors remain largely in the prototype stage, the technology is coming down the pike. When it arrives, farmers may encounter new obstacles. One such issue involves connectivity—something rural areas often struggle to access.
“We can see that connectivity is the backbone to support the development of autonomous tractors, and rural areas are in many places not properly covered,” Gossard says. “This is an issue for the farmers, where many new services rely on a reliable communication architecture.
“Who supports the responsibility if you lose connectivity?” he continues. “Will the OEM be able to identify the issue when something is happening at the level of the autonomous tractor? This coverage is really at the core of the debate to bring autonomous tractors and robotics to the fields.”
It’s clear that agricultural technologies are coming regardless of whether farmers, policy makers and product manufacturers are prepared for potential complications. For producers that struggle with labor, autonomous tractors and robotic technologies are worth the risk simply to stay in business long-term. This poses an interesting albeit necessary question: If autonomous machines malfunction, who takes the blame?
Bertolini says there are two existing frameworks that may provide viable solutions to this question. The first has to do with the autonomous tractor producers who certify and sell the equipment. Using the regulations Gossard referred to with respect to safety, producers would likely be accountable for equipment malfunctions, design flaws and other related issues. The second framework has to do with the liability surrounding damages caused by drones.
“In many member states, it is the operator that is responsible,” Bertolini says. “You have producer that produces and sells the drones, and the pilot that flies the drone. Then, you could have a third party that acts as the drone operator, and that operator could be a business.”
Think about a company that offers drone photography services. There is a business owner who purchased a lot of drones and hired photographers to fly the drones and take the aerial images. If one of the photographers accidentally flew the drone into a building and broke a window, the business would be responsible.
“In this case, the operator is strictly responsible for the damages related to drones, and I believe that this could be a viable solution for autonomous tractors as well,” Bertolini says. “That is something that would be easily managed through insurance coverage. The operator would buy insurance coverage related to potential damages, and this cost might be passed on to the customer as part of the cost of services.”
Considering the Future
Although there isn’t a current framework for authorizing autonomous tractor usage, both Gossard and Bertolini envision a future where these technologies are commonplace. Farmers who want to safely and successfully implement such machinery must carefully consider the legal and ethical issues. This begins with listening to industry experts and taking a cue from equipment manufacturers.
“The farmers need to use the equipment complying to the legislation enforced into the national laws,” Gossard says. “The complexity for managing a robot or a driverless tractor will depend on the respect of the regulations and the compliance to the operator manual provide by the OEM. The OEM will provide the tools and solutions in compliance to the essential health and safety requirements, and this is what will be available to the farmers.”
Bertolini also suggests thinking one step ahead, as the current rules around agricultural technologies were not created with autonomous tractors in mind.
“The field is so complex, and there is so much uncertainty in the legal framework,” he says. “All these bodies of norms are overlapping, and it is very difficult to untangle. With advancing technologies, we need more simplification and clearer rules. Until that happens, it is always better to see a lawyer sooner rather than later.”