Autonomous tech has the potential to shape the future of ag.

It wasn’t that long ago that an autonomous, unmanned tractor seemed like something more likely to be found in a sci-fi novel than a farm field.

While such technology has yet to become commonplace in the ag sector, it’s hardly the stuff of science fiction anymore. In fact, multinational finance company Goldman Sachs recently predicted farm technology could become a $240 billion market for ag suppliers over the next decade, with smaller, driverless tractors representing a $45 billion chunk of that total.

Some of the biggest names in agricultural equipment manufacturing have already developed autonomous concept vehicles that are currently being tested. Case IH revealed its cab-less, driverless tractor at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa this past August, while John Deere and its Intelligence Solutions Group has been promoting its own autonomous tractor prototype.

Leo Bose, Case IH’s Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager, says the impact of autonomous technology on farm operations could be limitless.
“The autonomous concept farm vehicle gives us a glimpse of the future,” he says. “For us, it’s all about efficiencies on that customer’s operation and how we can create a higher efficiency for that customer. If you can create a higher efficiency, it’s going to equal out to a return on investment for the customer, which increases their margin or profit potential on the farm.”

Making a Splash

Case IH and parent company CNH Industrial created quite a splash at the recent Farm Progress Show in Iowa with the launch of its autonomous concept vehicle. It was developed in collaboration with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Incorporated and was built on a Magnum tractor chassis that is capable of producing up to 419 horsepower.
A proprietary software system plots a path for the tractor which is transmitted from a desktop computer or tablet to the vehicle. The system can regulate the speed of the vehicle and allows multiple units to be operated at the same time and in the same field.

A vast array of sensor equipment including radar, LiDAR (a detection system similar to radar that uses infrared laser light instead of radio waves) and video cameras allow the vehicle to avoid any objects it might encounter, from predefined obstacles to livestock. If something unexpected crosses its path, the autonomous concept vehicle stops and an alert is sent to the farmer’s computer or mobile device. Cameras at the front and back of the unit allow the operator to see what the obstruction is and determine whether to tell the machine to proceed or not.

The unit is also capable of sending out alerts so the operator knows when it’s running low on fuel, or a seeder or another implement needs to be refilled.

Bose says the response his company received in Iowa and at two other trade shows this summer regarding the driverless tractor was very positive.

“The feedback we got was just tremendous. Producers were thinking of how to fit it into their operation today, which was a good thing because we were able to follow up with a lot of questions: how would you use it; where would you use it; what kind of applications would you see it in?”

An Ongoing Effort

Dan Leibfried, director of the John Deere Intelligence Solutions Group, says his company has been working on a number of autonomous prototype vehicles since its acquisition of NavCom Technology in 1999.

One of the first results of those efforts was the company’s AutoTrac assisted steering system. The semi-autonomous system is now widely available and reduces overlap when tilling, seeding or fertilizing and allows a vehicle’s driver to perform other tasks while seated in the cab. The company has also developed an autonomous lawnmower that is already commercially available.

Leibfried says the development of a driverless tractor was a natural evolution of the company’s efforts to develop autonomous vehicles for the farm sector.

The company’s driverless tractor prototype can be controlled by either a joystick or a GPS system that allows the operator to program a path for it via satellite that the machine will then follow. As with its Case counterpart, the John Deere prototype comes equipped with a number of cameras to show farmers exactly what the tractor sees and a sensor array to alert users when refills are needed.

“Right now our investments in fully autonomous systems or vehicles are as much about learning about the technology and how to apply it effectively and adjust from there,” Leibfried says. “These are all stepping stones on the way to a more autonomous system.”

Commercial Viability

Leibfried says the development of a commercially-viable driverless tractor could go a long way in helping address the shortage of skilled workers the agriculture industry is currently experiencing. Although the technology behind it won’t increase the labour pool, it could allow growers and their employees to be far more productive with existing resources – something Leibfried says farmers already have plenty of experience with.

“In the U.S., the average American farmer in 1940 fed 19 people a year. The USDA now estimates the average American farmer feeds 155 people. It’s not because they added a ton of labour, it’s because they got significantly more productive in their farming operation,” he says.

“If you look at our population around the world, it’s expanding. But when you look at the land mass for agriculture, it’s flat or shrinking,” says Bose.

“Autonomous technology has the opportunity to continue to help our producers and our growers do more with less, whether that’s expanding their overall acreage or getting across more acres in a day.”

Bose notes that autonomous technology has the potential to help farmers make informed decisions quicker and sooner.

“We’re trying to get the most yield potential out of the product that we’re planting, and we only get one opportunity in the spring to get that seed in the ground. The growing window is very narrow. Anything we can do in the cab to automate the process to make sure we get it right the first time, that’s what everyone from the manufacturer down to the producer is looking for: how can I bring the lowest cost of production to drive efficiencies in my operation?”

Are We There Yet?

The question on the minds of producers when it comes to autonomous tractors and other driverless vehicles is how soon they will be commercially available.
In theory, Leibfried says the industry is already there, but a lot of producers like to be involved in the system.

“It’s not the availability of the technology, it’s about the highest value use of the technology,” he says. “I’m not sure when or if adoption of autonomous farming will happen, but we’re prepared for it. Agriculture is evolving – it is an industry built on a passion for innovation. Much of where we will be in five years is connected to the current levels of adoption and what growers want to learn – and more importantly – how they want to apply it to make their operation even better.”

Some experts have suggested the first wave of autonomous tech will likely be used for high value crops such as tree nuts, vineyards and fresh produce. But first, manufacturers will have to overcome the limitations of existing sensor technology. While there have been numerous advances in that area, Leibfried says most sensor equipment still isn’t capable of providing the same kind of detailed analysis that a human driver can.

“Until we have all of the sensing technologies to completely take the place of what an operator would do relative to monitoring the system, I think fully autonomous systems are still a little bit ahead of their time,” says Leibfried. “Until you can ensure that something can monitor at the same level as the human who is watching things today – you run the risk of moving too far, too fast.”

Legislative regulations could be another potential barrier to adopting autonomous technology in the agricultural sector. Lawmakers here in Canada and the U.S. are already grappling with how to regulate the operation of driverless cars on public roadways, and those discussions have yet to touch on commercially-used vehicles like tractors or combines.

“For producers to move an autonomous tractor from point A to point B and it doesn’t have to cross public roads, that’s an easy operation,” Bose says. “But if there’s a public road dividing their field, that’s a whole different case.”

Autonomous Overview

One form of autonomous technology that has already begun transforming farming in North America is drones. Matthew Johnson of Manitoba-based M3 Aerial Productions says the use of drones has become increasingly common in Canadian agriculture over the last few years.

Matthew Johnson holds one of the drones
used in his operations at M3 Aerial Productions.

“At the individual level, farmers want to see what kind of services drones can provide. A lot of people are hearing about them, but they don’t know how to apply the technology yet,” says Johnson, M3’s founder and owner.

Johnson’s company does some work for individual farmers but the majority of his clients in the ag sector are agronomists and seed companies. He says their clients – like chemical application companies and seed retailers – are using the technology to complement their products.

“In terms of seed retailers, knowing exactly how their seeds stack up against the competition through our crop health analysis models will help them market their products and provide incentive for buyers,” says Johnson.

“A fertilizer/pesticide distribution company will show that they are looking out for the best interests of their clients if they can help them identify areas of concern in their crops and then treat those areas specifically – or avoiding them if ROI is too low – to save on input costs,” he adds. “Not only is this a sustainable approach to farming, it is cost-effective and efficient.”

One of the most common uses for drones in agriculture is to analyze environmental pressures like water stress, insect pressure or disease.

“It’s a huge leap from what a farmer can know from walking through or driving through their field or just looking at it from the side of the road, versus going up in the air 100, 200 or even 300 feet in the area to get a sense of what the crop looks like,”
says Johnson.

“If you have 20 acres that are affected by some kind of water stress that you aren’t aware of, and you fertilize that area or apply some kind of fungicide – that’s a big cost. If you don’t have to apply fungicide to that area, that is a huge saving,” he says.

The Role of Retailers

John Deere’s Leibfried says agri-retailers will have a vital role to play in days to come with helping growers understand and adopt autonomous technology.

“You have to have a distribution channel and a local support system that understands it and can deploy it effectively to meet the needs of the producer or grower, while at the same time being able to rapidly respond to system issues if they happen,” he says. “It’s not just about taking a box off the shelf and throwing it into operation and away you go.

“If the experience the customer gets out of it is that the product is easy and it’s effective and they can see tangible value out of it, adoption will happen much more rapidly. If it takes an advanced degree to set up and operate and maintain the machine, it’s going to be adopted much more slowly.” 

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