High-Tech Safety

December 7, 2013 08:00 AM
High-Tech Safety

What the future could hold for your well-being

The statistics are sobering. Today and every day, an average of 243 agricultural workers will suffer a lost-work-time injury, with 5% of these injuries resulting in permanent impairment. In the past decade, about 6,000 people have died from on-farm accidents.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, one change could cut that terrible trend in half. The group predicts a massive switch to robots and unmanned vehicles could prevent 2,900 deaths over the next 10 years.

This makes sense. Tractor rollovers are by far the most common fatal acci­dent on the farm. Removing the driver removes the chance of a fatality.

Could there be a future in robotic, driverless machines on the farm? The industry sees value in it—John Deere, Case IH, Fendt, Kinze and others are working on autonomous projects.

Food futurist Christophe Pelletier stretches this idea even further.

"We might not need tractors at all," he says. "The implements may drive themselves someday. The future of farm machinery seems simple—it will be all about computers and sensors."

Sensors are already being deployed to great effect in the automotive industry, Pelletier says, and there’s every reason to assume these innovations will trickle into the agriculture industry over time. Automatic braking is one of many examples of sensor-based safety, he says.

Sensors are also playing a large role in grain bin technology. Even today, farmers can buy temperature and moisture cables, says Jeff Decker, product safety manager with Grain Systems Inc. While the primary function is to monitor the grain and keep it in prime condition, Decker says there is absolutely a safety implication, as well.

Thanks to emerging research of biometric sensors, you will even be able to monitor any number of vitals for your livestock or even yourself, including heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol and more. Imagine the value, for exam­ple, of being able to detect an imminent heart attack or stroke before it happens and getting the proper medical treatment as quickly as possible.

Rapid response. Even with these safety advancements, accidents are bound to happen. That has researchers investigating ways to speed up the response time once accidents do occur.

As more local law enforcements acquire drones, that technology could be deployed for faster search and rescue missions. A so-called "lifeguard drone" is being tested in the Caspian Sea that not only finds stranded swim­mers but also delivers flotation devices to them. Applied to the agriculture industry, drones could deliver a defibrillator, first-aid kit or other medical assistance to an injured farmer before medics arrive.

Another example of speeding up medical response is a University of Missouri mobile app in beta testing.

"It monitors how stable the tractor or vehicle is during its operation," says Bulent Koc, University of Missouri assistant professor of agricultural systems management. "If the operation becomes dangerous or unstable, it shows warning messages to the operator."

If the operator cannot react in time and a rollover ensues, the app sends an e-mail to an emergency contact with GPS coordinates and an accident map. This functionality is needed because most farm accidents happen miles from the nearest hospital, Koc says.

"The operator could be conscious but pinned under the vehicle and not have access to the phone to make a call for help," he says. "This app would do that job on behalf of the victim."

Tracy Schlater, marketing director for Farm Safety for Just Kids, says the future might see additional safety measures build right into the tractor cab.

"It would be no different than OnStar," she says. "It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to picture emergency response systems installed in farm equipment."

Schlater says she hopes farmers won’t take emerging technologies for granted. Continuing education plus a common-sense approach on the farm will always be critical, she says.

"We hope the farm will be much safer in 2025 than it is today, and it’s entirely possible," she says. "Between technology and education efforts, agriculture could be in a much safer place. Technology only gets you so far—you still need to rely on your own understanding of any given situation and understand potential hazards."

A Closer Look at the Future of Farming

Nothing is constant but change, and the ever-shifting landscape of farming is a testament to that notion. "At first glance, the future of farming doesn’t look that much different than today," says Boyce Thompson, AgWeb editorial director. "American farmers will still be primarily growing corn and soybeans, and many will be raising livestock. But on closer inspection, they’ll be using some high-tech tools to help them get the job done."

In the spirit of discovering those potential tools, Farm Journal Media presents its Farm of the Future website, featuring emerging technologies to use in the field, in the tractor cab, in the office and more.


You can e-mail Ben Potter at bpotter@farmjournal.com.

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