Responsible innovation of autonomous robots in agriculture: towards more substantive inclusion and user-centred design

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Sch of Agriculture Policy and Dev


A recent survey by a Scottish membership organisation found that 65% of farm businesses arere considering down-scaling operations due to the impact of COVID-19 (Migration Advisory Committee, 2020). The pandemic, combined with uncertainty over Brexit, is threatening the supply of migrant labour and thus the completion of vital tasks in the high-value crop sector (e.g. top fruit [apples etc.], soft fruit [strawberries etc.], and field veg [asparagus etc.]). The soft fruit sector alone is worth £1.5 billion in retail value and £450 million to farm businesses per year and vital tasks such as harvesting and packing of crops needs to be completed to ensure that businesses are productive and that food security in these healthy products is guaranteed. Farming also needs to reduce its carbon emissions, limit food waste and reduce chemical use.

Autonomous robots in the high value crop sector potentially provides a solution to the lack of labour and these other issues. Electrification of robots can help with carbon emissions, precision technology can reduce chemical use, and autonomous machines may replace the work normally done by a human and improve food security of these healthy foods. Such technology is approaching high technology readiness levels and is being demonstrated on farms across the world. However, there are a number of social and ethical considerations of autonomous robots - such as impact on farm employment, cybersecurity, data ownership, bad consumer perception, and lack of safety - that may present barriers to adoption. We know from the history of agricultural innovation, particularly GM crops, that some technologies can fail because they are not designed in consultation with end users and other stakeholders.

It has been suggested that responsible innovation principles can help. This asks technology developers to anticipate consequences of their technology, both good and bad, include a wide range of stakeholders in development, listen to these stakeholders views and changing design or course (reflexivity), and work with policy-makers to set an institutional framework (e.g. policy instruments, laws) that can help respond to new knowledge or views.

There has been little, if any, empirical work that has investigated how to operationalize responsible innovation principles in the development of autonomous robots in agriculture. This PhD sets out to explore how stakeholders can be included in the best way, ensuring that inclusion is substantive instead of tokenistic, and then investigates how user views can be used to optimize the design of autonomous robots. The aim is to help roboticists understand how to incorporate response innovation principles into the design of robots that work for all stakeholders. Methods may include a structured literature review, surveys, interactive workshops, observation, citizen juries with stakeholders plus a social media analysis of user perceptions of robots, plus interviews and observation of roboticists involved in development. You will be working alongside cutting-edge projects (e.g. Reading/Lincoln "Robot Highways" project) which is demonstrating the application of autonomous robots in farm environments. You will also have access to the smart farming facilities of the Agri-EPI Centre (see below) where state-of-the-art robotic technologies are being developed and trialed.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/T008776/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2028
2603014 Studentship BB/T008776/1 24/09/2021 23/09/2025 Kirsten Ayris