Paper looks into ethics of using robots in agriculture

With automation poised to transform agriculture in Australia in the coming years, Monash University researchers have published the first-ever analysis of the ethical and policy issues raised by the use of robots in agriculture.
Agriculture employs around 2.5 per cent of the country’s workforce and is a valuable export, however, according to Professor of Philosophy Robert Sparrow and Philosophy Research Fellow Dr Mark Howard, little attention has been paid to the ethical and policy challenges that will arise as agriculture is increasingly automated.
Together they investigated the prospects for, and likely impacts and ethical and policy implications of, the use of robotics in agriculture in their paper Robots in agriculture: prospects, impacts, ethics and policy, recently published in the journal Precision Agriculture.
“While there hasn’t yet been widespread adoption of robots in farming due to a lack of technological breakthroughs, it’s anticipated there will be a gradual emergence of technologies for precision farming as well as the use of automation in food processing and packaging,” Professor Sparrow said.
“Already we are seeing the development and, increasingly, the adoption of GPS-enabled autonomous tractors and harvesters, robotic milking stations and dairies, robotic fruit and vegetable pickers, drones for rounding up livestock and crop-dusting and automation in slaughterhouses, food handling, processing and packaging all exist, among others.”
The authors said with global and local food security facing profound challenges including climate change, soil depletion, loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and population growth, robots could help farmers confront these challenges by improving yield and productivity, while reducing levels of fertiliser and pesticide use, as well as water wastage.
However, they stated the widespread adoption of robots in farming could have negative consequences, including mismanagement of chemicals, soil compaction due to heavy robots and potential food wastage if consumers come to expect standardised or ‘perfect’ produce.
This could also lead to further standardisation of breeding and creation via genetic modification of crops and livestock better suited to robotic harvest.
There is also a fear that smaller or struggling farms could miss out on the technology and be unable to keep up, leading to a centralisation of ownership in agriculture.
“There’s a risk that robots could impact negatively on biodiversity and on the environmental sustainability of agriculture more generally,” Dr Howard said. “Strong policy that encourages the development of robots that contribute to small-scale, local, and biodiverse agriculture and do not just promote existing unsustainable agricultural practices is a must.”
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Some industry experts suggest robots could also be used to improve the wellbeing of animals in livestock facilities by enabling feeding and watering regimes to be tailored, faster identification of sick animals and administration of medication, more humane veterinary procedures, and more humane and efficient means of slaughter.
“However, it should be acknowledged that, by their very nature, intensive farming practices pose significant challenges to animal welfare,” Dr Howard said. “The activities of robots may actually exacerbate the threats to animal welfare in practice.”
On a positive note, the physically intense labour associated with agriculture work and its seasonal nature could see robots developed for tasks such as weeding, fruit and vegetable picking, food handling and packaging tasks, which could increase productivity and the amount of produce sent to market.
Labour costs could also be reduced, but this would of course mean a reduction in employment opportunities, particularly for those in rural areas where employment opportunities are scarcer.
Researchers said the industry also needed to consider the potential risk that malicious actors might try to “hack”, or launch cyber attacks against, the automation on the farms of other nations.
“The urgent need to move towards more sustainable agricultural practices while, at the same time, meeting an increased demand for agricultural produce globally, means that there is a strong ethical imperative to explore how robots might be used to advance these goals,” Professor Sparrow said.
“The scale of the current global environmental crisis, and the challenge it poses to food security, suggests that every option to try to improve the sustainability of agriculture should be considered.”
Authors said a holistic approach to the uptake of robot technology in agriculture was required, firstly to address public concerns and the social and political impacts that may arise, as well as comprehensive consideration of the ethical and policy ramifications of their use
 

Powering the future of farming

In times past, farmers were at the mercy of the elements to determine a successful yield of crops. As the global population grows and consumer preferences evolve, today’s modern farmer must also consider the scarcity of natural resources, the threat of climate change and the growing problem of food waste.

The oldest human industry has undergone a transformation like no other. The 1800s saw the use of chemical fertilizers, while farmers began to plan their work using satellites in the late 1900s. Today, the world needs to produce more food against a background of climate change, which is adversely affecting crop yields and encouraging crop diseases. So, how can we produce 70 per cent more food to meet the needs of a growing population, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Smart farming offers a solution.

Using remote sensors to avoid costly manual monitoring, informed decisions can be made using real time data. This allows farmers to manage their inputs, such as water and animal feeds, more effectively to increase yields while maintaining minimal labor costs.

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In the last few decades we’ve seen the rise of indoor urbanised farming, the use of aquaponic farming, and a vast departure from the traditional field cattle farming of old. The Third Agricultural Revolution, which we are arguably in the midst of, is based upon IT solutions, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, sensors, and drones.

The use of robotics for repetitive tasks is a trend across many industries. In farming, farmbots are employed to perform once laborious manual tasks including seeding, planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. Farmdrones are also utilized for monitoring purposes and data on plant health and soil conditions are fed back into the system.

When making significant upgrades to a system, power quality issues must be addressed. Although robotic systems and sensor networks have practical benefits, they often use electrical and electronic components that can introduce harmonic currents into electrical networks. If the harmonic levels in an electrical system are too high, this can cause load failure. To mitigate against power failure and unplanned downtime, ABB’s capacitors and filters product portfolio offers a range of solutions.

In particular, the ABB PQF active filters tackle the problems caused by harmonic currents, load unbalance and reactive power demand, while offering a host of system benefits in low voltage networks. Compliance with the strictest power quality regulations is not something that farmers should overlook. ABB’s solutions are rigorously tested to ensure filtering efficiency and system reliability, so that smart farms can operate with uninterrupted systems for maximum productivity.

Smart farming has the power to increase yield and efficiency, raising overall productivity of the supply chain without requiring significantly more land investment. With this, farmers are able to reliably and sustainably produce yields to maintain the growing global population, without being at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable climates.

To discover ABB’s wide range of high, medium and low voltage capacitors and filters, visit their product area of the website and explore how to address power considerations that arise through smart farming

Why packaging processes are the essential ingredient for food safety

The Australian food and beverage market is one of the country’s major industries, with an annual revenue of $2.1 billion. It is populated by a variety of iconic and enduring brands. In such a crowded market, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to stand out. But with the right tools and processes in place, even the smallest businesses can compete on a level-playing field with larger operators.

Packaging is one of the crucial ways that businesses can build their brand and differentiate themselves from their competition. With strong links between visual presentation and positive memories, it’s an essential piece of a brand’s identity. Iconic Australian brands like Vegemite, Arnott’s and Cadbury can be instantly recognised by their packaging, and it has a direct impact on the perception of their brand.

But packaging is more than just a “pretty face” – it has an important role in protecting the health and safety of customers. This was made clear in last year’s strawberry tampering scandal, when Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) report into needle contamination suggested that more effective, tamper-proof packaging could be one way to prevent future incidents. Similarly, with the debate over single-use plastics and resource wastage growing stronger by the day, packaging can also signify a company’s commitment to sustainability.

In the wake of food issues like strawberry tampering and combined with increasing competition and a focus on sustainability, having streamlined, consistent and high-quality packaging processes during manufacturing is now more important than ever. A high standard of packaging not only attracts new customers to a brand, it can also save costs, protect customer safety, and maximise business resources.

The importance of safe packaging
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code lays out a series of standards that food businesses must maintain, including an active commitment to reducing the risk of food contamination and protecting the health of consumers. The code outlines that packaging must be durable, of a high quality, not leach chemicals or allow harmful microorganisms to become mixed with the food, among other requirements. Contamination remains a core risk of packaging processes and can be caused by poor manufacturing conditions or inconsistent cleaning and sanitising processes.

When managing food processes, consistency is key. Quality packaging is costly to manufacture, so it’s equally important to use it efficiently and effectively. This requires constant monitoring, skilled workers, and equipment that’s up to the task. But maintaining high quality standards doesn’t just mean being “compliant” to current legislation – it requires an active commitment to constantly improving manufacturing processes.

Reducing risks
One simple fact of food manufacturing is that the presence of human workers on the production line carries the risk of contamination, from various bodily fluids to the growth of harmful bacteria in manufacturing environments. In the first two months of 2019, there have been nine food recall reports from FSANZ, including a variety of dairy product recalls due to the presence of E. coli bacteria, as well as a beer nut recall due to the presence of glass fragments. These incidents, which have potential to cause illness or harm, were likely the result of inefficient manufacturing processes or human error.

When taking on dull and repetitive tasks in the workplace, fatigue can lead to mistakes. In the food and beverages industry, these mistakes can be harmful, but actively improving production processes and introducing new technologies can prevent them.

Investing in technology and automation is one obvious solution: not only to reduce risk, but also to improve productivity. Since being installed in manufacturing plants in the 1970s, robots have evolved to take on increasingly complex tasks. Now, the latest robotic technology can take on smaller scale and more intricate work, and handle more delicate products, such as eggs and fruit.

Collaborating for better packaging processes
In particular, collaborative robots (cobots) are a growing technology that the food and beverage industry has an opportunity to adopt to reduce the risk of contamination and maintain high levels of product consistency. With their small size, flexible and adaptive setup, and ability to work in close-proximity with people, cobots can be used across food and beverage production facilities, from picking and placing to packing or palletising.

This process often takes place in a “clean room”, where products can be manufactured in a controlled environment to reduce the risk of pathogen transference. Cobots working to produce items such as dairy and juice can create longer-lasting products, as well as ensure consistent output.

By integrating cobots into the production line, a company can reduce the risk of cross-contamination across a plant. Additionally, automating repetitive tasks not only increases consistency and productivity but it also frees up employees to take up more interesting and engaging tasks. Reallocating these tasks creates new opportunities for workers to learn valuable, transferable skills such as programming, keeping them more engaged and alert while working on the production line.

The food and beverage industry has a long history of adapting to changing taste, trends, and technology. Introducing automation technology like cobots to the workplace has the potential to improve overall safety, reduce waste, and improve productivity. It is important the industry does not wait for another safety scandal to act: it’s time to get on the front foot and ensure the sector’s efficiency, growth and success for years to come.