Farm from an Empty Cab

02:50AM Aug 27, 2014
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Unmanned vehicles are close to running the rows

One driver for one tractor is giving way to one driver controlling a fleet of machines. That’s an oversimplified forecast, but the technology is no longer a matter of theory and might be available to farmers in as little as two years. 

The arrival of supervised autonomous vehicles will be a benchmark for agriculture. Although skeptics abound and technological leaps come lock-step with a bit of fear, history shows that productivity gains and precise application always win. 

Pared down, a supervised autonomous vehicle is not steered by anyone, but its location is monitored and immediate contact is available when needed. The vehicles operate by exception, continuing to run until they don’t understand a cue. 

Steve Faivre, senior partner and innovation lead for Memes Associates, believes the technology will take off with smaller equipment. 

"Our vision might include small-size grain carts and 10' planters," he says. "The issue comes with bigger equipment and the buddy system where you have a tractor with a driver, with a similar tractor right behind it, almost tethered, performing on the same crop. You could do that with one driver essentially piloting two tractors or more. I think the buddy system on tractors might have a higher value than autonomous grain carts."

Farmers are currently caught in a trap, needing larger and stronger machines to get the same amount of work done in the same amount of time with less labor. The only way to achieve that is through bigger equipment. However, with autonomous vehicles, one farmer can control two or more pieces of machinery, bypassing the need to get bigger. 

That will usher in a reversal on equipment size trends, says Kevin Monk, senior consultant and strategic innovator, Memes Associates.

Monk believes autonomous tech-nology is applicable to big or small farmers and will be scale appropriate with a smaller farmer managing a couple of four-row planters and a bigger farmer coordinating two 12-row planters. He also believes farmers will ask questions when they consider the pressure four-wheel-drive tractors and combines place on the soil. 

The value of autonomous vehicles is two-pronged. First, reduction in costs through labor savings. Labor hours per acre eliminated by automation will influence acceptance in agriculture. Second, removing the driver from the equation improves vehicle performance. Granted, that doesn’t apply to handling spots that require subjective judgment. 

Kinks to address. The mining, automotive and trucking industries have cleared the way for automation with sensors, software and field testing. Automation technology, how-ever, is still in the seminal stage with farming applications. It’s not only the logistics of moving machinery but also transporting crops and agricultural products.
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Agriculture has benefited from a golden opportunity to ride the coattails of other industries. The mining and automotive industries have been invaluable in preparing ground for agricultural automation. 

Regardless of how much promise automation holds, costs are a big question. "We get cost-reduction through the automotive industry where they are pushing sensing and processing technology to price points that make agriculture automation feasible," explains Mel Torrie, CEO,Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI).

The initial costs for automated technology might dictate only certain regions can afford it, but costs should balance out with time. 

"Look back when RTK guidance first came out and the high costs for the specialty crop growers in California where it took off. As costs came down, application went wide," Monk says. 

A matter of time. Technology, feasibility, usability and legality are lining up for automation in farming, and the arrival of unmanned ground vehicles might come quicker than most realize. 

"In the next three to five years, you will see the introductory phase of supervised autonomy, and in five to 10 years, it will be commonplace," Monk says. "Go back in history when farming went from animal draft to mechanization—the jump frightened people. When books are written 100 years from now, they’ll be pointing to this major shift in agriculture."

Advances in the past five years, particularly with lasers and radar, have given machinery companies the means to bring automation down to a feasible price point. Each month, Torrie’s team reviews the latest sensor technology, running them through validation testing to see which are applicable to production agriculture. 

Even when costs reach an acceptable level for farmers and manufacturers, the true differentiator will likely be usability. Different systems will dictate various levels of learning and instruction, but simplicity is the top priority. Automation, including set-up and troubleshooting, must be simple for farmers to manage. It will most likely determine the rate of adoption.

The biggest immediate impact of automation will likely be seen in orchards and vineyards. 

ASI is testing skid steers and conventional tractors across hundreds of acres, refining the technology and ease-of-use factors, including all of the reporting to meet Environmental Protection Agency requirements in regard to spraying. 

Torrie believes there’s little motive for heavyweight agriculture companies to introduce an extensive line of driverless products because of liability reasons, which leaves the door open for smaller companies to push automation. 

"In 15 to 20 years, we’ll be taking automation technology right out of the factory warehouse and into unstructured agriculture environments where harvesting and all operations can be done automatically," Torrie explains. "I don’t see any of the technical hurdles stopping that from happening."