Autonomous equipment continues to drive farming forward

From self-driving tractors to sensors on implements, we explore how autonomy is advancing the ag industry.

by Taryn Milton

The future is already here, when it comes to autonomous equipment. What remains to be seen is how we fulfill the promise of the technology – to make a farmer’s job easier and to improve efficiency and profitability.

So how do we get from here to there?

Agriculture is no stranger to technology. More options are available to farmers every day from companies across the agricultural sector, especially when it comes to field equipment.

Autonomous options have been part of agriculture in small ways, like with moisture sensors or autosteer, for several years but now companies are offering fully autonomous equipment.

This newer technology helps with major issues such as labour shortages and continual work involved in sustainability efforts.

In this edition, we talk to three manufacturers, an ag college and two companies that offer field operation services with their autonomous equipment.

We explore advances already achieved, obstacles to full automation, and how the role of farmers will likely evolve.

Why go autonomous?

Clearly, autonomous advances are important because farmers are still struggling to find skilled labour.

Agriculture has “been fighting the same problem since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve seen people leave farms and go to the cities to get jobs at the factories. We continue to see a decline in the amount of people that are actually engaged in production agriculture, but the population continues to go up,” says Luke Zerby, brand marketing manager for Precision Land Management at New Holland North America based in Pennsylvania.

The world needs more food and, if the number of people working in agriculture declines, there needs to be a way to do more with less. That’s where autonomy comes in.

“There are some benefits to autonomy for our farmers in managing that labour and trying to hire that labour, especially during busy harvest seasons, for instance,” says Dr. Margaux Ascherl, the program delivery manager for autonomy at John Deere based out of Urbandale, Iowa.

Since harvest is an all-hands-on-deck endeavour, there usually aren’t extra people available to complete tasks like fall tillage.

“If you want to do tillage, for instance, at the right time of the year, during the right conditions for that field, you have to expand your labour force to do that. I think that’s a great example of where autonomy could really help farmers get the work done faster without having to add to the stress of the harvest season,” Ascherl tells Better Farming.

Autonomous equipment promises a more efficient way to farm the land, which is a big reason why Alberta’s Olds College wanted to explore the technology, according to Dr. Joy Agnew. She is the associate vice president, applied research, Centre for Innovation at the college.

In 2020, the college staff and students used Dot autonomous equipment for the first time for broad-acre crop production on their Smart Farm. The Dot Power Platform is a mobile diesel-powered platform that can hook up to different implements and run them autonomously.

The college operated a seeder, sprayer and granular fertilizer spreader on the system.

“The operation side of it obviously was focused on seeding, fertilizing and spraying our crops. But on the applied research side, we were looking at collecting as much data as possible to get a sense of labour efficiency, field efficiency and logistical efficiency of autonomous equipment versus conventional equipment,” Agnew tells Better Farming.

Staff at Olds wanted to not only give their students an opportunity to see and use this technology, but also be on the leading edge of the future, says Agnew.

Autonomous equipment is “going to be much more commonly seen and utilized in the next five to 10 years, and we wanted to be the place that started the training, teaching and learning about those systems,” she explains.

Current options

Companies around the world provide farmers with options to explore autonomous equipment. Small Robot Company based in Salisbury, U.K. uses robots and artificial intelligence (AI) to complete farming tasks.

The company has three small, lightweight robots. Tom is a scanning robot that does crop monitoring and mapping; Dick completes non-chemical weeding by zapping weeds with electricity; and Harry is a no-till digital drilling robot that’s still under development. The company’s AI platform is called Wilma and it uses data from Tom to create crop care instructions that the other robots can carry out in the field.

“Our vision is to create a system that allows per-plant farming for cereal crops. Rather than automating single processes on the farm, it looks to essentially sell an outcome, which is a healthy crop for combining at the end of the year,” says Ben Scott-Robinson. He is the co-founder and CEO of Small Robot Company.

The company is paving the way into what they call the fourth agricultural revolution, a development that Scott-Robinson’s business partner Sam Watson Jones saw the need for as a fourth-generation farmer in the U.K.

“The third agricultural revolution system that we’ve been using since the end of the Second World War has stopped improving yields. The massive changes of the two-tonnes-per-hectare (0.8-tonne-per-acre) to eight-tonnes-per-hectare (3.2-tonnes-per-acre) leap that’s been possible in that time flatlined and has really been flatlined for 20 or more years,” Scott-Robinson tells Better Farming.

“As far as we’re concerned, that leap from the third agricultural revolution to the fourth agricultural revolution is about honing in on what your data point is. Honing in on understanding the specifics about an individual plant, and then treating that individually. Just by doing that, you naturally massively reduce the amount of inputs you use,” he explains.

Options available to farmers a little closer to home include Sabanto Ag Inc., which is a farming-as-a-service company that offers field operations in row crops to be completed by autonomous equipment.

The company, which is based out of Chicago, Ill., offers services like planting, cultivation and tillage to farmers in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois.

“We’ve gone 40 hours straight from beginning to end, non-stop, other than to fuel (the equipment) up obviously, being monitored remotely by engineers as far as 250 miles (403 kilometres) away from the field,” says Craig Rupp. He is the CEO and founder of Sabanto Ag.

Companies like John Deere have a focus on customer problems and how to solve them with new technology, says Ascherl.

“We are doing things the way we always do, which is to look at what the farmer really needs and solutions that that autonomy can meet. So, rather than just chasing autonomy as a technology solution, we’re really looking at how will it solve problems on the farm within the fleet, and where it matters most. It’s no good to release technology if it can’t be used and it can’t make a farmer’s life easier,” she says.

Options like AutoTrac, where the tractor drives itself down the field with the farmer still in the cab, is one way John Deere is helping their customers, says Ascherl.

New Holland started exploring ways to take the farmer out of the cab with their NHDrive concept vehicle.

“There are autonomous vehicles being tested out there that are built from the ground up to be autonomous. One of the things we’re looking at with (the NHDrive) project is to be able to do that type of tractor, but then how could we bring autonomy to an already existing tractor to be much more cost effective for the producers that New Holland services,” Zerby tells Better Farming.

New Holland Intellisense
    New Holland continues to work in autonomous equipment and has features on their combines like IntelliSense to improve the machine’s functionality. - New Holland photo

New Holland also implemented IntelliSense in their equipment, which works with their guidance solution and telematics on their combines.

“IntelliSense goes through every 20 seconds and is checking hundreds of parameters to automatically adjust to make sure the machine is functioning as high as possible,” explains Zerby.

Case IH also developed equipment where the farmer isn’t in the cab of the tractor.

“In 2016, we showed the autonomous concept vehicle where we actually removed the cab off of a Magnum tractor and showed what that could look like for autonomy or automation,” says Leo Bose.

He is the Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) marketing manager and is based in Racine, Wis.

Case IH constantly works toward autonomy and they have five different levels in their company growth strategy, says Bose.

Level one is guidance such as row guidance, AccuTurn (end of row turns) and implementation guidance. Level two is co-ordination optimization and improving what is done in the cab.

Level three is highly automated machines, level four is supervised autonomy and level five is full autonomy with no one in the cab.

Right now, Case IH is working in level one and two, but they’re exploring how to get to the next levels. They have products available right now such as AFS Harvest Command for their combines.

Case IH autonomous combine
    Case IH photo

“AFS Harvest Command allows that combine to automatically adjust itself as it’s harvesting grain through the field. So, what that will mean is the operator in the past maybe had to increase or decrease rotor speed, maybe cleaning fan speed or increase the opening on the sieves. Now, that combine will automatically adjust itself as it goes through the field,” Bose tells Better Farming.

Obstacles in autonomy

While the goal of autonomy is to make the farmer’s life a little easier and improve efficiency, some challenges stand in the way of moving forward with autonomy on every farm.

The cost of autonomy and implementing it on a farm is one major issue.

“Farmers, arable farmers and cereal farmers, they work very tight margins,” says Scott-Robinson. “You have to provide a model that allows them to be able to try what you’re doing with relatively low cost and relatively low risk.”

Small Robot Company offers a perhectare subscription that allows farmers to try out the per-plant service.

“The last thing (farmers) want is some new piece of technology totally destroying their crops or damaging their soil or doing all sorts of stuff. So, they need to see and understand what happens,” he says.

Farmers also need to be able to see the cost-benefit of autonomy versus not hiring a person to run the equipment or having a certain task on the farm automated, says Zerby.

The price of building autonomous equipment or implements is going down as more technology is developed in other industries, and it will continue to go down in price, says Zerby.

Another issue is around regulations.

“Right now, it’s not legal to have an unmanned vehicle drive up and down the road,” says Zerby.

While regulations always change, especially since the automotive industry is working in the autonomous vehicle world as well, it will take time to get to the point of having an autonomous tractor drive down the road.

Figuring out how to best implement certain types of autonomy is also an issue. An operator sitting in a cab can see when an issue arises with their equipment or implement, and can stop the machinery and fix the issue, but automating this task is a challenge, says Bose.

Adding more technology or a new platform for farmers is also an issue John Deere is working through, says Ascherl.

“Having to adopt a new data platform or a new precision ag platform … that’s separate from your current operation – that’s just one more headache. One more piece of setup that you have to do, one more piece of monitoring, one more piece of support that you would have to add,” she says.

The farmer’s role

While companies are working through stumbling blocks, autonomous equipment is still moving forward and a major catalyst for that continued commitment is how much it will help farmers do their jobs.

“We’ll never take the farmer out of the farm; we absolutely need a farmer there. They know their ground better; they can make the best decisions for their operation. But not requiring someone to be in a cab of a vehicle all the time, is not the same as taking the farmer out of the farm,” says Ascherl.

Autonomous equipment provides the opportunity to relegate the dull, dirty or dangerous tasks to equipment, says Agnew.

“If you’re thinking about driving up and down the field, land rolling or rock picking or sitting in the field and waiting for the combine to be filled with grain, those (tasks) fit those criteria: dirty, dangerous and dull,” she says.

Utilizing autonomous equipment also allows the farmer to do other important tasks on the farm.

“I don’t think the farmer is merely a tractor jockey. A farmer is someone who is cognizant in agronomy, marketing, negotiating prices, equipment repair and also performing field operations. I’m trying to make their last job easier,” says Rupp.

Using autonomous equipment can also free up schedules to allow for additional family time, says Zerby.

The future

Autonomous equipment is already here, and farmers are using it in different ways across the industry. While full autonomy may take some time yet, our experts believe the technology is going to continue to improve moving forward, while still having traditional options to do field work available.

“I don’t think it’s an all or nothing. I think there are going to be situations where labour is required, and things are going to have to be done manually. I don’t think it’s going to be overnight. I think it’s going to be phased in. It’s like GPS. GPS on tractors and autosteer – that didn’t happen overnight,” says Rupp.

Small changes are going to make a big impact in the ag industry as the future of autonomous equipment continues to change.

“That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about looking towards the future of precision agriculture and specifically autonomy, is to know that we don’t exactly know where it’s going to go, but we know it’s going to continue to grow and continue to get more impressive,” says Zerby. BF

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