Farmers and other ag professionals will discuss a range of issues related to digital farming technology during a Safety for Emerging Robotics and Autonomous Agriculture Workshop Nov. 9-10 in Urbana.

The University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin (UW) will host the event at the U of I National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Workshop participants will develop future research recommendations for ag autonomous robotics. These will cover safety, insurability, regulation and policy, and required workforce skills.

Advances in autonomous robotics will impact future business management as well as production and safety practices. Artificial intelligence now enables fully autonomous machines, including full-sized tractors that till fields, machines that manage weeds and robots that milk cows and feed calves. These machines depend on sensor-based information and have prompted important questions regarding safety protocols, risk management, implications for rural communities and changes in the agricultural workforce.

“The introduction of mechanization in agriculture in the early 1900s transformed farms and surrounding communities. We expect digital technologies to lead to a similar transformation on farms and in many rural areas,” said Salah Issa, U of I assistant professor in agricultural and biological engineering.

“Labor cost and availability is driving the increased interest in these machines to care for animals and conduct some of the routine field work now done by people,” Issa continued. “University research hubs are buzzing with new applications for autonomous systems.”

Each new labor-saving device brings a different set of potential concerns as well as opportunity.

“This astonishing rate of tech advancement in agriculture is exciting and will likely lead to improvements in production, efficiency and sustainability,” said John Shutske, workshop co-chair and UW-Madison biological systems engineering professor and Extension specialist.

“If we substitute some of the human labor done on farms with new machines, there is potential to improve safety for farmers, ranchers and hired workers,” Shutske said. “However, the lightning-fast rate of change means that designers, operators, insurance companies and others might struggle to keep up with the unanticipated safety issues these technologies might create. This is especially a concern when farm-sector stakeholders don’t have an opportunity to weigh in on the benefits or challenges.”

He added, “Our workshop will give insurers, lenders, engineers, producers, manufacturers, educators, policy-makers, community leaders and other partners the chance to voice their thoughts on what these changes mean, and how we can best work together in the coming years.”

While safety and risk will be focal points, organizers will also examine issues connected to the impacts of tech on rural economies, changes needed for worker training and new needs in vocational education.

The event will feature experts from equipment companies and specialists who focus on injury and safety as well as those who will speak about how newly adopted agricultural technologies might impact community systems. The workshop includes a full-day session to identify needs and barriers. Priorities for action will serve as a roadmap for future research, outreach, education and partnerships. Summary reports will be made available in 2023.

Ticket costs range from $20 to $75.

For details, registration, workshop location and information about discounts for farmers, ranchers and other ag producers, visit https://go.illinois.edu/SAFERAG.