This start-up is using AI to prevent farm accidents

26 Sep 2018

Image: gabriel12/Shutterstock

Fresh from victory at the National Ploughing Championships, Machine Eye’s Brendan Digney spoke to TechWatch’s Emily McDaid about farm safety.

Machine Eye’s creator, Brendan Digney, is a master’s student at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), a farmer, an electrical engineer and a pilot.

Growing up on a farm outside of Newry, Digney found an area where he could combine his many talents: in farm equipment safety. “I entered the BT Young Scientist of the Year when I was at school and I showcased the technology that ended up becoming Machine Eye. They said: ‘Nice idea, but we don’t believe the technology exists to make this happen.’ So, I said I would make the technology exist.”

Digney tells me that Machine Eye is the only technology that employs its own AI algorithms to study behaviours of farmers – and the people on farms – to engage a shut-off switch on a tractor when things get dangerous.

“Accidents on farms exist at times when farmers are busy. Long days and weather can add to stressful conditions. Also, repetition leads to complacency, contributing to accidents. When the behaviour of the user and the conditions of the machine are on a path towards danger, Machine Eye triggers an automatic reaction in the machine,” Digney said.

group of businessmen in suits standing outside building with pillars.

Brendan Digney (third from right) and his co-founders meet Bill McKiernan of WSJ Capital (third from left) at the Ireland Funds Business Plan Competition. Image: TechWatch

Farming accidents cause life-changing injuries – or worse, death. Digney tells me that agriculture is the only industry where fatalities over time are not decreasing. Farmers are 18 times more likely to die than any other type of worker.

“And, a quarter of all incidents on a farm are to do with machinery. The vast majority are fatal,” Digney said. “Our AI algorithms take control of the machine and remove whatever is causing the risk – say, a child walking towards a tractor that’s in motion – and make the situation safe. It’s very reliable and very unique.”

Digney goes on to say that he’s coining a new industry around ‘intelligent safety’ and he’s using a multilayered approach to building his safety solution.

The technology comprises three key components. He explained: “There’s a sensor package – a mix of proprietary sensors including cameras. There’s a central control unit – you can think of that as the black box where the magic happens, where inputs from our sensors go. And there’s the output signal and integration with the electronic control systems of a machine – say, a tractor.”

Digney then shows me a video of a PTO drive shaft, something found on every tractor. It rotates at 1,000 revolutions per minute. It transfers power from the tractor to whatever implement the farmer is using. In this video, it’s clear how risky it would be to come into contact with this moving part.

The technology community has taken notice. Machine Eye has won several awards this year, including QUB’s Dragons’ Den, and it has taken home an innovation award at the recent National Ploughing Championships, the largest trade show of its type in western Europe.

The five founders of Machine Eye are now working with Santander Bank to take their innovation forward.

Digney’s passion is inspiring. He said: “We’re trying to make it as successful as possible. We want safety to be affordable for everyone.”

Visibility is a massive problem on farms – the machines are large and they have a lot of blind spots. Digney said that their machine-learning algorithms “discriminate between people and inanimate objects. A cow will not trigger our system but a person will.” He makes it clear, however: “We don’t remove the need for users to act safely around their machine – we augment the operator.”

The founders of Machine Eye are currently at a “pre-sales stage”, Digney said. “As a safety product, we don’t want to bring a product to market until we’re happy with it. We’re perfectionists, so it needs to be perfect.”

It’s currently being tested at Digney’s family farm. He said: “We’re hoping to have the first deliveries out there for next summer – but we don’t want to rush it.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Machine Eye is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2018 will take place on Thursday 11 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland