UK (Harper Adams University) Academic Specialists Feed Into New Code of Practice for Autonomous Vehicles

A new code of practice for autonomous vehicles in agriculture and horticulture has been published – and was drawn up with help from Harper Adams University academics.

The new British Standards Institution publication Use of autonomous mobile machinery in agriculture and horticulture – Code of practice?(BS 8646:2023) offers guidance for those using autonomous mobile machines for farming operations. It sets out safety and risk management processes that cover the use of these machines as well as the roles and responsibilities of owners, operators, designers, manufacturers and more.

The publication of the new Code follows a global drive towards uptake of autonomous machinery in agriculture and horticulture to support labour shortages and a need for more intensive crop management.

In February this year, the UK Government pledged £168m to encourage the development of new technology and innovative ways of farming. These solutions are intended to focus on practical solutions that advance food productivity and deliver significant environmental and animal welfare benefits, including robotic technology.

Despite the benefits, the use of autonomous machinery can also present risks, especially when integrated with staffed farm operations. This new standard provides best practice guidance on the introduction and safer use of these machines, whilst also encouraging their wider adoption, particularly in smaller enterprises.

BSI’s associate director of sustainability and energy, Sebastiaan Van Dort, said: “Smart farming can bring huge benefits to society, including more economical production of crops, sustainable production and greater food security, as well as helping the agriculture sector to meet Net Zero targets.

“Using IT including robotics has the potential to accelerate progress towards a sustainable world while delivering higher, more-profitable growth and improved food quality.

“This new code of practice can facilitate the development of the AMM manufacturing sector, helping to protect the future of farming and benefit us all.”

The publication of the code has been welcomed by two Harper academics who have been working with autonomous equipment – and were part of the committee that developed the guidance.

Principal Investigator of the Hands Free Farm and Senior Engagement Fellow Kit Franklin and Elizabeth Creak?Chair of Agri-Tech Economics Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer have each welcomed the new guidance as a step forward for the industry.

Kit said: “With autonomous systems starting to find their way onto farms, it was important for the industry to show we are going to use this technology responsibly.

“The standard gives farmers and contractors clear guidance into what they should do when bringing a new piece of autonomous machinery into their agricultural production.

“The concept to develop a Code of Practice came out of discussion meetings linked to the Hands-Free projects and the Global Institute for Agri-Tech Economics – and when BSI were bringing the committees together, James took a key role in the drafting committee.”

And Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer – who discussed the need for a Code of Practice while giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee last month – added: “It is important to note that Harper Adams economic research showed that overly rigid autonomous machine safety regulations could seriously undermine the profitability of using robots, and consequently could constraint adoption.

“That economic research provided the scientific basis for the stakeholder discussions.

“In addition to benefits for farmers and contractors, the code of practice will give entrepreneurs and investors greater confidence that if they develop autonomous machines, they will be allowed to commercialize them in the UK.

“In the EU, Switzerland and the US State of California companies have struggled to commercialize autonomous machines because of rigid ‘one-size-fits-all’ safety regulations.

“From the entrepreneur and manufacturer side, the code of practice provides a clearer framework for how autonomous machines will be used on UK farms. It reduces investment uncertainty.”