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Farm safety has a new champion


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

Machine Eye’s creator, Brendan Digney, is a Masters student at Queen’s, a farmer, an electrical engineer – and a pilot.

Growing up on a farm outside of Newry, Brendan 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.”

Brendan 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,” Brendan says.

Farming accidents cause life changing injuries, or worse, death. Brendan 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,” Brendan says.

He goes on, “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 makes the situation safe. It’s very reliable – and very unique.”

Brendan goes on to say that he’s coining a new industry around ‘intelligent safety’ – and he’s using a multi-layered approach to building his safety solution.

The technology is comprised of three key components. He explains, “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.”

Brendan 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 Dragon Den, and they’ve taken home an innovation award at this week’s 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.

Brendan’s passion is inspiring. He says, “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. Brendan says 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,” Brendan says. “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 Brendan’s family farm. He says, “We’re hoping to have the first deliveries out there for next summer – but we don’t want to rush it.”

Machine Eye is a finalist in the 2018 Invent competition in the Electronics category.

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