Le 20/05/2020

Regulation and standardization of agricultural robots: where are we now in Europe, and in the world?

FIRA 2019 (the International Forum of Agricultural Robotics) was the occasion for several players in the sector of international agricultural robotics to gather and share their vision of the legislative basis that governs the industry. Moderated by Stéphane DURAN, Project Director at Robagri, the purpose of this panel was to discuss the evolution of the legislative framework for agricultural robotics, as the high degree of automation of agricultural tools has brought the issue of safety back to the center of the debate. The speakers addressed the liability and cyber security matters, as well as the major challenge of harmonizing the legislative framework between countries. Two speakers, Mike PANKONIN and Rohan RAINBOW, reported on the progress of legislation on agricultural robotics in their respective countries, namely the United States and Australia. These two examples can help create a harmonized and standardized legislative base, a key issue to facilitate trade and contribute to safety.

FIRA 2019 round table about regulation and standardization for agricultural robots with CEMA, AEM and OECD.

The 2006 Machinery Directive as a starting point:

The Machinery Directive 2006/42/CE is the European reference for agricultural equipment.

Published in 2006, this guideline sets the operating and safety requirements that apply to manufacturers. It states inter alia that any manufacturer who complies with the harmonized standards as established by the European Union shall be given a “presumption of conformity”. But this text is struggling to define precise outlines, particularly as the rise of automation has created new machine features and new uses which, in fact, generate new risks. Ivo HOSTENS, Technical Director at CEMA, the association representing agricultural robotics in the European Parliament, observes that the Machinery Directive turned out to be relevant for agricultural robotics in the fields, although “certain points still need to be clarified”, especially since the text never specifically refers to autonomous vehicles.

This need for clarifications is the main focus of the revision of the text that is currently being carried out within CEMA. It is the high degree of automation of the machines, with the elements of obstacle perception, communication, and control of the machine which varies depending on how of autonomous it is. Cédric Séguineau, Head of HSQE at Naïo Technologies, addressed this topic during his pitch at FIRA 2019.

The challenges of standardized and harmonized regulation.

According to José Brambila, representative of OECD, the trans-governmental organization for trade facilitation, the agricultural robotics industry should be modelled after the tractor certification system that OECD implemented. The organization recommends the application of a harmonized certification system with common tests and examinations carried out within each member country. It also advocates the principle of "mutual recognition", i.e. that each country acknowledges the compliance of the robot if it has been tested in a foreign country that is a member of the agreement according to OECD standards. But it would not be necessary to test the tractor again when it is imported into a foreign country. The ultimate goal of a universal certification system is to promote trade by reducing risk and facilitating procedures.

The American example.

Mike PANKONIN, Director of the Technical and Safety Services at AEM, reports on the state of the legislation in the United States which uses bare minimum standards. The court will rule on the manufacturer’s liability in the event of an accident, which, therefore, should be an incentive to go further than the legal minimum to be legally covered and hereby reduce risks. This is a fundamental consideration when exporting robots to the United States, especially since certain standards differ between states. In California, for example, the operator must be present alongside the autonomous machine to take control of it. According to Mike PANKONIN, "this standard limits the opportunities provided by autonomous robots," and discussions are underway to change it, even as the issue of the workforce loss slows the process.

Australia: the lack of regulation

Rohan RAINBOW, Director of AGTECHCENTRIC, points to the lack of regulation in administrative burden, the Australian government imposes few or no standards regarding autonomous robots. However, the various players in the Australian agricultural sector are working on the creation of a "code of conduct" for the industry, in order to legally protect producers and manufacturers but also to encourage companies to market their machines in Australia while reducing uncertainty. The text aims to define the use of autonomous machines, their maintenance but also how to report incidents. Australia is attentive to legislation developments.

In the main, agricultural robotics is a sector that must be structured around common legislation and standards. This requires cooperation between the various players, some of whom have already started working on legislation specific to their country. These texts undoubtedly provide a stepping-off point for working together on drafting a common standard.

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