The rapid development of fully automated farm equipment is nearly ready to usher in a new era of agriculture.
Growers, get ready for the next big transformation in farm technology—the driverless tractor. After two decades of building on a precision platform that started with GPS navigation, farm equipment manufacturers are getting close to realizing the much-anticipated milestone of having fully automated tractors on farms.
Right now, the driverless tractor still needs an operator, whose role is to intervene frequently to keep the tractor on task. But the ultimate goal is to offer growers driverless equipment that is smart—or autonomous—so they can perform tasks without human intervention. In other words, the driverless tractor would act as its own operator.
This goal requires equipment with sensors and cameras to relay data to onboard computers, which need artificial intelligence, so they can instantly respond to anything affecting the equipment’s current task. The technology will require minimal outside help.
While the farm equipment industry has spent a couple of decades moving toward developing autonomous equipment, the race to commercially market that equipment has recently moved into high gear.
“Key farm manufacturers are all working in some way on autonomy,” says Dan Halliday, global product manager of precision land management at New Holland Agriculture. Niche companies and after-market suppliers also are developing autonomous solutions, which adds pressure across the industry to keep moving ahead, he says.
In 2016, both New Holland and Case IH introduced autonomous tractor prototypes, which the companies are still testing in the field.
“We’ve done a lot of work since then,” Halliday says. “We are working on sensor technology to make the driverless operation viable. And we launched smart auto-turn features last year.”
But there’s still work to be done, he adds. “There are applications that will need more work before we can fully automate them. If you want to till a field, it’s relatively easy to automate. However, if you’re combining, there’s a lot more going on.”
John Deere signaled its commitment to autonomous machinery when it acquired Blue River Technology. Blue River specializes in computer vision and machine learning, which are key technologies for developing task-oriented autonomous equipment.
“Frankly, we know that the move toward autonomy is about more than just a tractor driving across the field,” says Than Hartsock, manager of production system solutions at John Deere. “The quality of the job that the implement is doing matters, because that’s what ultimately impacts the crop that’s being grown. It’s not just the combine, but also the header that really matters. We are focusing our efforts on sensing, controlling and automating those functions.”
Blue River’s work on an advanced sprayer system illustrates the potential of automated technology. Computer vision allows the sprayer to sense the environment around it and look for weeds. The machine learns through artificial intelligence to identify weeds from soybeans, and then it precisely sprays individual weeds. This labor-free operation uses a minimum of chemicals and captures crop data to document the entire process.
Autonomy takes out potential human error and gives the user a choice to operate overnight or for 24 hours. Clearly growers can benefit from increased efficiency on their farms utilizing these technologies.
“The driverless tractor and automated farm equipment will be able to record any field event, which is important for developing insights, such as calculating return on investment [ROI],” he says. “Capturing timely and accurate data to document field applications for reports and stewardship requirements will also be possible.”
Because various sensors, tools and artificial intelligence will automate data collection, Burdett says the data will “enable a whole new level of decision-making capabilities. Growers will benefit from all of it.” He says the adoption of digital technologies in the ag industry is inevitable and moving fast.
“It’s escalating, and that’s driven partly by farm economics,” he says. “It’s very important for farmers to know their numbers. Digital tools and information technology can help farmers be better business people.”
Also driving the move to digital is a demographic change. “There are younger growers coming back on the farm who have a different way of doing things, including how they make decisions for the farm,” Burdett adds. “They do much more online research and consume a lot more information than previous generations.”
For many years, the high cost of components needed for autonomous vehicles was partially responsible for ag manufacturers not bringing the vehicles to market. But that is changing.
Uber, Google and Tesla have made big investments in technology for their self-driving cars. This development has substantially lowered the cost of some components that are also used in automated farm equipment.
“We are seeing tremendous progress and innovation in cameras that are more capable and less expensive,” Hartsock says. “The sensors they use to look for obstacles in the road are becoming more effective and less expensive, too.”
As more industries use these components, prices will further drop, making autonomy within reach of farmers.
“We continue to see farmers who want products that make them money in a safe environment and that make fieldwork easier,” Hartsock says. “And as circumstances continue to compromise viable labor in our industry, farmers will need this help. All of these technologies make things easier and often have a substantial ROI for farmers.”
Autonomous and semi-autonomous equipment also may do the job better. “Autonomy takes out potential human error and gives the user a choice to operate overnight or for 24 hours,” says Halliday. “Clearly growers can benefit from increased efficiency on their farms utilizing these technologies.”