The development of autonomous machinery is an exciting prospect for the agricultural sector but its use presents a number of potential pitfalls.
As well as the obvious safety concerns, Grain Producers Australia southern director and special projects spokesman Andrew Weidemann said it is important to protect farmers' social licence to operate.
"If we look at recent issues with access to labour last harvest and the need for skilled and experienced operators, access to autonomous farm machinery can help overcome some of those difficulties and improve grower productivity," Mr Weidemann said.
"However, if we don't consider the workplace health and safety issues first and get it right from the start, in terms to how this technology is used on farm, it may set back our cause, rather than advance it if unforeseen events occur."
Three of Australia's farming and machinery advocacy groups recognised the need to prepared for the arrival of this technology in 2019 and decided to start developing a code of practice.
The Code of Practice for Agricultural Mobile Field Machinery with Autonomous Functions in Australia was finalised in February last year by GPA, the Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia and the Society of Precision Agriculture Australia.
It outlines the roles and responsibilities of designers and manufacturers, importers, distributors, owners and operators.
For GPA chairman Barry Large it was clear they needed to be proactive in order to optimise outcomes for growers and the industry.
Mr Large said the groups also understood the importance of building community acceptance and understanding for the use of autonomous machinery.The coordination and drafting of the code has been led by farm technology expert Dr Rohan Rainbow.
"The code has been designed to provide guidance on: mobile machinery with semi-autonomous and autonomous functions used in agriculture field operations; and developing and evaluating safe work procedures for use of such machinery," Dr Rainbow said.
"Examples of such machinery used in grain farming operations include: planting, spraying, fertilising and harvest operations."
Dr Rainbow said the code was being treated as a 'living document' and could be amended to include future technology advancements such as spray drift sensors, smoke sensors and leader-follower systems for future technology for transport on public roads.
"The code can also be amended to accommodate future advances in electric vehicle and renewable fuel technologies," he said.
"It has also been designed to align with current and emerging ISO standards and developments for this technology."
Further work required
The Western Australian government was involved in the code's development and as a result, the state was the first to receive the document for formal consideration.
Last August the code was presented to the WA Commission for Occupational Safety and Health.
However, WorkSafe WA Commissioner Darren Kavanagh said the commission made the decision not to endorse the code as there was further work required to bring it to the standard required for endorsement.
Dr Rainbow said WA had also been selected as the place to start this process given another code had already been developed and implemented for autonomous machinery used in the mining industry.
"The Safe Mobile Autonomous Mining in Western Australia Code of Practice (Autonomous Mining Code) was implemented in 2015, and this was used a template to develop ours," he said.
"This gave the committee practical working insights, which helped inform the potential operations of our code, in relation to agricultural use.
"The Department of Mines and Petroleum also provided their input during the development phase and our work was also supported in principle by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development - Agriculture and Food."
Dr Rainbow said they had recently developed the project's second stage, where each of the project partners recommitted to ensuring the code gets rolled out nationally.
He said they were also committed to ensuring effective industry adoption and stewardship of autonomous machinery.
"This stage two process will ensure industry can realise the benefits of this technology, with continued and appropriate access to autonomous vehicles that deliver commercial benefits on-farm, through widespread government endorsement," Dr Rainbow said.
"Following adoption, the code development committee intends to review the code within 12 to 18 months of wider scale commercialisation of autonomous agricultural equipment."
GPA chief executive Colin Bettles said GPA was open to engagement with all states and stakeholders.
"We believe this process of rolling out the code nationally may be best served by following WA's lead," Mr Bettles said.
"However, we're open to having constructive talks now, if anyone wants to start moving sooner."
Mr Bettles said Australian grain producers may gain access to autonomous technology sooner than previously anticipated, given the release of John Deere's first autonomous tractor to a limited number of customers in the United States.
"January's announcement that John Deere's fully autonomous tractor is ready for large-scale production and available to US farmers later this year, generated great excitement and anticipation about the opportunities this technology can bring here in Australia," he said.
"Delivering the practical benefits of autonomous farm machinery for farmers is important, but doing this alongside workplace health and safety standards is also critical to overall success."