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Perspective: Autonomous Anticipation and Anxiety

07:34AM Oct 26, 2016

autonomous-tractor-illustration( AgWeb )

Maybe it’s just because I’m an aging engineer whose dreams of the future were largely shaped in the 1950s and 60s, but the recent debut of a concept autonomous tractor by CNH Industrial riveted my attention. It’s not an artist’s rendition or a computer-generated simulation but an actual working prototype. There isn’t a cab. And it is so close to the images of “Farms of the Future!” from my youth, it’s eerie.

It is this development more than anything that solidifies the staggering possibility of autonomous machines. This is a tractor humans cannot operate directly. It’s not just an optional control system. What does it suggest about the future of farms like ours?

Although many of us reflexively saw this technology as another force for large farms, I am less convinced that is the biggest impact. Autonomy seems to be size-neutral. It’s true the promotional video showed what I am guessing is a 300-plus horsepower unit, but the same chips and servos could be slapped onto machinery from combines down to lawn mowers. Seriously—you could teach your mower where to mow once and let it take over. 

Better, Faster, Cheaper. Technology such as this tends to get better, faster and cheaper by the minute. This will encourage back-fitting to older machines and adaptation to more types of equipment. Guidance systems served as amusing nerd obsessions until the price range (and signal declassification) meant even scoffers grew tired of having less-than-arrow-straight rows. Ditto for yield monitors, grain-loss indicators and a host of other electronics that now seem mandatory for machine operation. 

The point is autonomous machines will be useful on farms of all sizes. It is possible that smaller one- to two-person farms operated by second-career or otherwise employed farmers could eventually stand to benefit more than large operations. Robot milkers are saving mid-size dairies, for instance. The uneven demand for labor on grain farms is exactly the type of problem autonomous technology can help solve. We might have to hang on for Moore’s Law to drop the price, but the smaller market is too big to ignore.

The Risks. A big doubt: how to put autonomous equipment safely on the road. This is a big hurdle. Farmers who operate close to home, as opposed to across counties, might capitalize on this technology earlier. The proximity premium for contiguous ground could rise with operators willing to pay more to rent and own tracts compatible with this technology. 

Current operator physical requirements essentially evaporate. An operator could be anyone and anywhere. We’re bombing the Middle East with drones controlled in the U.S. Your brother-in-law could monitor a chisel plow from his home office five states away to help out after hours or your older neighbor whose knees won’t let him climb into the cab. Bragging about long days in the cab will be like using a checkbook at the grocery store—quaintly amusing.

It is impossible to ignore that autonomous equipment will replace people. The number of acres effectively managed by one person defies prediction. It would be foolish not to be concerned about how our industry and communities will cope with this impact.

Despite the pluses and minuses, though, my guess is the adoption rate of such new tools will be influenced by the one factor overweighing all others in agriculture: land ownership. The right to decide who farms an acre rests solely with the owner. Autonomous equipment will likely hit our fields more slowly than in massive-tract competitors such as Ukraine or South America. For better or worse, the U.S. could lose its image as a tech leader.

Our profession has talked about technology depopulating our ranks for decades. But I believe we face a very similar situation with longshoremen and container ships, finance managers and computer algorithmic trading, as these and too many other occupations are built on routine, impersonal tasks.