Preventing health and safety risks in agriculture with technology

New technology in farming machinery coupling could make agriculture safer and reduce health and safety risks for farmers. Here, Innovation News Network speaks to Andy Newbold from FarmSmart.

Farmers usually have to hitch and unhitch tractors to trailers and tools several times a day which can be time-consuming and unsafe. Technology is currently being developed to do this at the push of a button, and it is ultimately set to make the lives of agricultural workers safer, quicker and easier. This technology into farming coupling machinery is helping to reduce the risks to farmers as it allows them to change their trailers, or connect tools to their tractors, from their seats, not even having to be near to the connection.

Safety for farmers in the workplace is something that the European Commission has previously looked into and smart farming using technology is being developed as a key priority in order to reduce health and safety risks. Innovation News Network spoke to Andy Newbold, managing director at Farm Smart and previously president of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers, about how technology can drive safer farming.

What are the main health and safety risks that workers in the agriculture sector currently face?

There are some key elements which pose health and safety risks; a lot of accidents happen because workers become far too familiar with the tasks which they are doing and therefore, in their minds, the hazard they are mitigating becomes less and less important because it has not happened before and they become casual to the point where they are not as careful as they should be. This means it is a cultural problem, so the health and safety risks to farmers remain the same. The reality is, it is how they deal with these risks and how they perceive them which is the challenge.

Therefore, a fairly dangerous task, which workers believe to be safe, isn’t; it is just that the hazard hasn’t turned into an accident, but the risk has remained. The technology is still there, but the challenge is the population in the workforce. We have an ageing workforce and they are familiar with the hazards, meaning they sometimes do not give them the seriousness they require; they take chances, and that is when people get hurt.

A disproportionate percentage of the agricultural workforce are injured every year, with the industry accounting for some 20% of all workplace injuries, with 23% of fatalities being caused by being struck by a moving vehicle, and a further 10% by contact with machinery.

How has automation altered health and safety risks across farms throughout Europe? Does it pose new complications in itself?

Automated technology has taken the operator or the individual away from the hazard. In the case of something that can work autonomously, such as a field scale robot, it has taken the individual out of the field and they are therefore no longer physically near the machine.

This is a good thing, because it has separated the hazard from the individual, and thereby eliminated some potential health and safety risks. There is a separate debate regarding how much automated technology is being adopted, however, and I think in warehouses, in vegetable packaging, and in food processing it is used to a greater extent. However, people are still hand-harvesting vegetables with knives; they are cutting cabbages and cauliflowers, so that side is not necessarily being automated.

There is also automated monitoring, which involves sensors on machines which can sense people nearby and stop. Machines which wrap bales, for example, have got sensors on them which will slow a machine down if an obstacle or a person comes within their range.

The complications with automated technology regarding making a decision of whether an obstacle is a human or an obstacle is an obstacle is that the machine itself is making the judgement about whether a it should speed up or slow down. Taking that decision away from a human may pose critical health and safety risks.

The key thing in the design of autonomous vehicles such as a tractor is that if there is a situation where it doesn’t know what to do, it simply stops; people think they are more automated than they are and in the case of, for example, TESLA automated cars, you still need to be in the driving seat, paying attention and using the tools which are in the car with you to drive (although there have been cases where car drivers have fallen asleep or are watching their phone or their iPad while the car is driving on the road).

Self-driving cars obviously have parallels with self-driving tractors. On the prairies of the mid-western states of the USA and Canada, autonomous tractors probably have more of a place than on a tightly populated island like England or in the Netherlands or France – where there are more people who are likely to interface with autonomous technology. Where the challenges arise, it is always where the machinery interfaces with the individual.

Technology which sees farming machinery autonomously coupled/synced together is gaining momentum in agriculture. What kind of potential, and benefits, will this application provide?

A tractor is a power unit, whatever it does in the field is generally dependent on the thing that it is coupled to, either a trailer or a plough or a cultivator; the tractor is just the engine. Farming machinery has always been coupled to power units. Once upon a time, it was a horse and a plough; it is just that the horse has been replaced with something much bigger.

John Deere have developed something called ‘machine sync’, which is used to guide a tractor alongside a combine harvester as it unloads the grain, before releasing control of the tractor back to the driver. Machine sync is great, because it is taking the skill away from the operator; if the operator is working long hours and it is a job which requires attention, letting the technology do it is better all round.

As the population grows and demand for food increases, how can advanced technologies such as autonomy increase crop yields across farms?

Timelier field operations are the most obvious benefit. You can plant a crop at the optimum time in the optimum conditions, and if you are not reliant on one working unit, regarding constraints such as time and location, you can apply nutrients and crop control products on the same basis. You can harvest a crop exactly when it is required, at the maximum yield. If they are vegetables and high value products and that is a very positive development.

I believe advanced technology will enable the production of more food because, in the case of irrigation, as soon as a crop gets stressed and needs water, technology can enable that; if the crop is not stressed, it grows better, and it grows faster. The skill required for growing crops will remain, but the implementations and the growing decisions will be done by technology.

I don’t see there being an autonomous farming system which grows crops without human input, at least not in the medium term. Although there is another debate there around whether society is happy with technology growing crops and whether society can make the distinction between technology being the enabler and a human making a decision which is enabled by the technology.

Regarding drones and robots, drones allow you to see things you could not otherwise see at ground level, and the technology now exists to allow drones to utilise high quality images, for instance to identify weed infestations. Robots can work all night if required, and in the last 15-20 years we have seen robots increasingly being used on farms, meaning that farmers don’t have to milk their cows for four hours every day. As soon as the cows are uncomfortable, they can take themselves in. You will see cows being milked three or four times a day because they want the milk to be released. It is much better for the cow, and it means the farmer does not have to be up in the middle of the night, milking his cows. Robots can also spot the condition of crops.

How is FarmSmart involved in discussions about technological advancements for the benefit of increased safety and food production? How will your priorities evolve going forward?

We are a publishing and events delivery company; we publish magazines to help farmers and growers to make the most of the technology which is available to them. My drive is to express complicated technology, in a straightforward way, to help the readers take their businesses forward by implementing technology and making the most of the technology that they already have on their farms. A lot of growers are concerned about making the right decisions with their existing technology, and I see my job as being to provide helpful information to inform their management journey.

Andy Newbold
Tweet @andynewbold

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