As technology advances, robotics present opportunities for Australia’s agriculture sector. But before retiring Bluey in favour of a robo-dog, farmers need to consider the insurance and liability implications of going robo.


From robo-dogs that herd sheep to UAVs, robotics is making a mark in agriculture


Australia was “built off a sheep’s back” and agriculture remains a key industry for the nation. According to the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), the gross value of Australian agriculture in FY19 was $62.208bn, with 85,483 ag businesses employing 318,600 people (2.5% of the national workforce) on 394 million hectares of land (51% of the nation’s landmass). And while much of the way the land is worked has remained the same for generations, innovation is playing a crucial role in advancing the sector.


“A key aspect of modern agriculture is the integration of science and technology into management practices. Agricultural industries rely on knowledge derived from areas as diverse as plant and animal biology and behaviour, chemistry, statistics, land resource, genetics, environment and climate; and the integration of this knowledge with economics and modern information technologies,” said the NFF.


“Efficiency gains though new technologies and farm management practices, achieved on the back of research and development, have enabled Australian agriculture to stay a step ahead of our international competitors – returning average productivity growth of 2.7%-a-year over a 30-year period.”


GPS-enabled technologies, such as precision agriculture, autosteer and controlled traffic farming, have already found favour with farmers. The tech has been applied to traditional farming equipment such as tractors, harvesters, ploughs and sprayers to improve labour efficiency and curb waste by enabling large-scale crop farmers to harvest and spray fields with centimetre accuracy.


The next frontier is automation and robotics 


Robots can carry out tasks that are repetitive, dangerous or require high levels of speed or precision. Used in combination with remotely-sensed data, robots support new levels of decision-making and assume some traditional farmer roles. Robots that can plant, fertilise, spray, weed, monitor, harvest, pack and transport crops, and inspect and herd animals are fast-approaching.


Spot, Boston Dynamics’ robo-dog, is making international headlines, with a YouTube video showing the robot herding sheep in New Zealand (back in 2013, Sydney University tested a prototype robot, nick-named Rover, on dairy herds).


“Equipped with payloads like heat, LiDAR, gas and high-resolution camera sensors, Spot navigates rugged environments to capture data in real time – feeding this data back into existing business systems, wherever they are located. In agriculture, farmers can access information such as more accurate and up-to-date yield estimates. This provides access to a new category of automation, and a safer, more efficient business,” according to robot operations platform Rocos.


While farmers may not be planning on retiring Bluey any time soon (Spot only has a 90-minute battery life while a cattle dog will run all day), the use of autonomous robots in agriculture is increasing the efficiency of food production – increasing accuracy in yield estimates, relieving the strain of worker shortages, and creating precision in farming.


Australian universities like the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are producing experimental agbots that are designed to handle most of the major faming tasks, with self-driving farmbots and intelligent flying drones capable of surveying and analysing existing farm conditions and delivering necessary actions. 


According to leading roboticist, Professor Salah Sukkarieh, robotic technology, in combination with digital data, will deliver sustainable agriculture, and help feed the planet, even as global population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. 


Using agbots to complete tasks such as dairy milking, harvesting, spraying and surveying replaces the need for human labour, and delivers benefits including a higher quality of fresh produce and lower production costs. AgriFutures notes: “Robotics and automation technology also holds promise to provide growers with greater knowledge of the state of their operation, and the capability for acting in real-time to increase efficiency, reliability, and productivity whilst minimising environmental impact.”


While agbots combine the methodical nature of machines with a human-inspired artificial intelligence (AI) to increase productivity and reduce operating costs, there are insurance matters to consider, including public liability, professional indemnity and property damage. 


As yet, protocols (particularly in terms of safety) for the operation of autonomous robots on farms have yet to be developed. While regulations for operating UAVs have been established – and insurance is available for those operating drones – ground-based robots have not been included. Implementing appropriate international and national standards for on-farm robotic functions will provide insurers with more peace of mind and lead to the development of policies. 


Liability also needs to be considered. If the actions of the robots acting autonomously cause injury to people or damage to property, crops or the environment, the question of who is responsible is raised. Is it the developer, the manufacturer or the user?


And what if a farmer or autonomous robot acts on the advice (data) provided by AI (algorithms) and it turns out to be wrong? Who should cover those losses?


With robotic technologies being trialled on properties across Australia, it will only be a matter of years before they are commercially available at affordable prices. No doubt by the time robots are working 24/7 on farms, insurers will have developed policies to cover the risks and protect farmers who tap into the tech.


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