Ensuring that industry and the public understand and accept robots and that codes of practice are in place for their use is key to their successful introduction, said Dr David Rose of Reading University.
Dr Rose, along with colleagues from the University of Lincoln and industry partners, is taking part in the UK Government-funded Robot Highways demonstration.
The £2.5 million project will establish what is said to be the world’s first robotic farm.
Dr Rose said: “Agriculture 4.0 is perceived as ‘exciting but scary’, and alongside its benefits there are social, environmental, legal and ethical issues which could derail its implementation.” He has co-authored a study, currently in review, entitled ‘Towards the responsible development of autonomous robotics in agriculture: A call to action’, which looks at the pros and cons of automation.
“Examples include the potential for automation to attract younger workers, help with labour shortages and provide skilled job opportunities while tackling the dull and dangerous tasks.
This is countered by the fact that some farmworkers could lose jobs and that dangerous jobs may actually be displaced to sectors which manufacture robots – mining, for example.” The study proposes a suite of measures needed for responsible innovation, and Dr Rose said: “We have seen this in action with Innovate UK’s responsible innovation guide which introduces the PAS 440:2020 standard for such developments, while in Australia, a Code of Practice for Agricultural Mobile Field Machinery with Autonomous Functions has been drafted.”
However, Dr Rose said that surveys into farmer and consumer acceptance of autonomous agriculture have not yet been truly inclusive, tending to focus on selfselecting farmers.
“There is a real need to test different methods of inclusion.
There is also a need to respond to feedback by questioning underlying assumptions and considering alternatives,”he said.
Developments must also be responsive, he added.
“Regulations must keep up with technological advances and codes of practice or standards for the design and operation of autonomous robots must be established, constantly reviewed and updated.” Robot Highways plans to include both growers and operators in its demonstration project and aims to improve user-centred design and peer-to-peer knowledge exchange.