It wasn’t long ago when DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) lightbars were first introduced and some producers quickly dismissed them as electronic gimmicks with little use in farming. Once they saw the systems in action or tried them out themselves, it didn’t take for doubters to see the impact lightbars would have on their farming operations. This was especially true when they were used with a crop sprayer in bad weather, when foam markers would either blow the foam or freeze the system.

The next leap forward came in the form of auto-steer systems. These are similar in concept to the lightbar, but presented the opportunity to remove the need for the operator to physically steer the equipment. Any farmer who owns and operates a GPS auto-steer system today will tell you it’s one of the best investments they’ve made to increase pass-to-pass accuracy, boost efficiency and lower operator fatigue during long days in the field. These technologies started with tractors and have rapidly spread to tillage, seeding and harvesting equipment, offering the same benefits across the varying platforms.

As auto-steer has become standard on most large equipment, the next step forward was the introduction of systems such as John Deere’s iTEC Pro. This system employs a series of controllers, linked by a CAN (controller area network) bus, operating at 250 Kbits/second. These types of networks enable the controllers on a tractor to “talk” to other components and share information regarding where the tractor is and where it should be. The system also allows tractors to automatically raise equipment, such as a planter, as it enters an end row, turn the tractor into the next pass and lower the implement back into working position once it begins the next pass.

These systems can be programmed to shift down ahead of the headland turns, and shift back up once the planter has been lowered. All of these advances are reducing the operator’s responsibilities.

The operator holds up his hands to show that he has little or no involvement in operating the tractor. In the next wave of precision ag, the operator will not be present as autonomous tractors take to the field.

The tractor operator holds up his hands

The Next Step

So what’s next? Autonomous tractors? In short, “yes,” the next step will be toward an autonomous, or “self-governing,” system.

One of these was introduced this month at the SIMA show in Paris, where Case IH was awarded a gold medal for the introduction of its V2V, or “vehicle to vehicle,” system.

V2V is a type of communication system that is emerging for on and off-road vehicles that provides location information between different pieces of equipment. For example, the Case IH V2V system allows a combine to adjust the speed and position of a grain cart that runs alongside while unloading grain. This concept will become even more important as combines automatically adjust forward speed to maintain a consistent loading on the separation system.

Also at the February SIMA show, John Deere was awarded a medal for their system that electronically regulates the forward speed of equipment based on load sensing in addition to other control systems. Such systems are expected to be introduced into platforms such as balers and forage harvesters, again to increase efficiency and reduce the reliance of the operator.

When will we see totally autonomous tractors operating in the field? For now, experts say initial releases will be in pairs, with an operator located in one unit and a driverless “drone” running alongside or behind.

Reducing Labor

So what are the benefits? In most areas I work with, it’s a struggle finding good farm labor, especially during the busy season. If single operators can safely operate multiple pieces of equipment, increases in efficiency and reduction in labor requirements are significant. Secondly, a computer will likely be able to operate equipment more efficiently from a gear/speed/throttle perspective, perhaps even determining the optimal direction to seed or harvest a field, based upon topography, field size, field shape, etc.

Third, smaller, lower cost units will be justified because they will be able to seed, harvest or till 24 hours a day, in lieu of an operator running say 16 hours a day. This in itself could offer exceptional utilization benefits in addition to being able to plant a crop in a more timely fashion. Lastly, smaller units that can operate continuously 24 hours a day will likely be lighter, in an attempt to reduce soil compaction levels which are becoming a greater concern with today’s larger and heavier equipment.

Challenges Ahead

What are the major challenges in utilizing such systems? Obviously the liability aspect will have to be addressed first, especially when operating in highly populated areas. Initial use will most likely take place in the wide-open areas such as western North Dakota, eastern Montana, eastern Colorado, the Canadian provinces or Australia. It will take the application of advanced monitoring and sensing technology to establish the exact position of the equipment relative to hazards and early versions will likely require an operator present, at least somewhere within the field to monitor operation.

A second challenge will be to establish which platforms are best suited for autonomous operation. For example, a tillage tractor will likely be easier to operate autonomously, compared to a combine operating in muddy conditions. Cameras, along with crop and load sensing technologies can help in this regard.

From a dealer’s perspective, all of these advances in technology will undoubtedly change their focus when it comes to field support. Most dealers are already moving away from service techs who are capable of only turning wrenches, to a new level of support staff that works with laptop computers for diagnosing equipment problems. Better yet, much of the new equipment will be in direct communication with the dealership, so tech personnel will be made aware of specific problems at the same time as the operator. Tech personnel may then be able to diagnose and solve many technical issues via a cell phone link, without actually having to visit the field.