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Monarch Tractor’s petition for autonomous agriculture denied

Monarch Tractor, maker of a fully-electric autonomous tractor, had its petition for use of its driver-optional tractors without a human operator denied by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA).

The petition, denied in a 3:4 vote, sought to update Title 8, Section 3441 (b) of Cal/OSHA’s regulations. According to subsection b, “All self-propelled equipment shall, when under its own power and in motion, have an operator stationed at the vehicular controls.” Monarch Tractor claims the current regulations, which originated in the 1970s, are outdated, not taking modern technological advances to agricultural machinery, such as autonomy, into account. 

The petition also outlined the safety benefits of autonomous machinery, how Monarch would incorporate enhanced safety guidelines into its equipment, and a commitment to continuing to collaborate on advance safety and sustainability. 

“Monarch continues to advocate for the farmer and ensure access to the latest technology that will increase farm worker safety,” says Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder and CEO of Monarch Tractor. “The tractor driver seat is one of the most dangerous places on small farms with exposure to chemicals, harsh elements and equipment issues including implements.” 

Despite the ruling, Monarch will continue to work with Cal/OSHA to gather data and clarify safety regulations. They are also working to establish key milestones to follow in farm environments where autonomous equipment is expected to work in close proximity to farm workers. 

Experimental Wine Run

Monarch has worked with Cal/OSHA over the last three years, in which Monarch has incorporated several safety features to its machinery with input from Cal/OSHA. 

During this time, Monarch operated an experimental run to test the driver-optional vehicles at the Wente Vineyards, and Crocker & Starr Vineyards in California. The experiment tested the functionality and technology on the tractors, working on its Real Time Kinematic GPS, eight cameras, a deep learning neural networks computer, emergency stop buttons, audible and visible warning systems, breaking standards, speed limits, lights, detection avoidance systems, and training requirements. 

The testing was still underway when the petition was submitted in December, 2021, but had operated over 760 hours without any incident, according to Monarch. Some of the safety features currently incorporated into the tractors include a speed limit of 3 mph while in autonomous mode, and digital safety guard rails that deploy when a human is within 33 feet of the vehicle. 

“While an approval today would have expedited the regulation process, and reduced paperwork and data sharing burden for Monarch and other OEMs, this ruling simply underscores that there is more work to be done under our current Cal/OSHA variance process, and as the leader in farm automation technology, we will continue to work with Cal/OSHA on use cases where autonomous equipment is in close proximity to workers,” says Penmetsa.

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