Moment of Truth for Farming Robots

October 8, 2016 02:57 AM

Driverless technology makes more leaps

Nobody believed Eli Whitney until the cotton gin. A single person could pluck a pound of cotton lint free from seed in a day; the gin pulled apart 50 lb. When doubt and technological change face off in agriculture, time tells the winner.

Is farming ready for robot tractors? Autonomous agriculture advocates say the day of driverless vehicles is just around the corner. Whether its planting or harvest, time lost is painful and can’t be recovered. The concept of 24/7 operation in agriculture is no longer confined to a fantasy.

Historically, major changes in farming are met with long looks and a healthy dose of producer skepticism. Ultimately, acceptance of autonomous farming vehicles will be determined by performance in the field.

“Technological change brings a range of reaction. Early adopter or hard-line doubter, that’s normal human behavior. There’s no commercial production yet, but it’s coming,” says Matt Nielsen, director of marketing at Automated Solutions Inc. (ASI). 

Starting as a spinoff company from Utah State University in 2000, ASI is the vanguard of autonomous vehicle production, with roots in agriculture, and stretching to the mining, automotive, security and defense industries.

Case IH and New Holland, collaborating with ASI, recently released autonomous concept tractors. They feature a conventional engine, transmission, chassis and couplings, but with the driver removed from the cab. The cabless Case IH Magnum concept tractor is packed with robot technology for multiple tasks. 

“We’re getting this ready to scale,” says Leo Bose, Case IH’s Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager. “Whether a 140-hp tractor or a 620-hp tractor, the autonomous technology can go either way and extend to harvesters as well.”

Bose says the Case IH Magnum concept tractor introduction has triggered a wave of producer reaction, from doubt to wonder. “When farmers actually see this tractor perform in our video, they respond with all sorts of questions because the savings in hours, fuel and efficiency are easy to see,” Bose explains. 

Flexibility is preserved for the producer, says Dan Halliday, Global PLM manager for New Holland. Automation will change the entire dynamic of time and efficiency for farming. “Fully automate a tractor and the operator can switch to another task out of the cab and wait on alerts as needed. We’re talking about maximum production, the same rate as with any other automation,” he adds.

John Deere doesn’t have an autonomous tractor ready for the shelf just yet, but is aiming first for robot technology in orchards. 

How would autonomous vehicles affect revenue? Goldman Sachs projects automation might boost a farm operation by 10%. But, such estimates ring hollow until robot tractors roll across U.S. farmland.

Halliday offers a three year-plus time window until commercial production. The cost is still unknown, but he says expenses will be tempered by the automobile industry’s move toward driverless sensors and technology. “Communications, bandwidth and software—we’re linking them all together and getting closer,” he notes.

Producers are waiting with a host of questions, but the possibility of historical change and efficiency is enough to draw long looks. 

“It’s difficult to describe how fast this is happening,” Nielsen says. “We’ve already seen it in mining and automotive and it’s going to translate to agriculture.”  

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