A Farm Equipment Special Report: What Will Agriculture Look Like in 2021?

Robot-operated tractors scurrying around doing all the laborious farm work has been a pipe dream for equipment makers for many years, if not decades. But for the first time, manufacturers may actually be on the cusp of commercializing autonomous systems for various farm functions.

"I have seen more autonomous vehicles in the last 6 months than I've seen at any other time in the history of the industry," says Jeff Schick, global director of Eaton Corp.'s ag and forestry market segment.

One company seizing the autonomy reins is Kinze Manufacturing. In August, it introduced the "Kinze Autonomy Project" and demonstrated a fully functioning autonomous grain cart system and an autonomous planter system.

"We're excited to introduce the first truly autonomous row-crop solution in the world on this scale," says Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, vice president and chief marketing officer at Kinze. "This technology could be used to do a variety of tasks, including planting, nourishing, maintaining and harvesting crops."

Kinze has demonstrated a driverless tractor and grain cart being summoned to a moving combine that is ready to unload. It syncs up alongside the combine and tracks along. When unloading is complete, it returns itself to the edge of the field to wait for the next load.

Autonomous planting also was demonstrated. Pulling into a premapped field, using the same type of map generated for variable rate fertilizer application, the system determines the best pattern for planting and lines itself up in the correct position. Engaging the planter, the tractor takes off, leaving pass after pass of perfectly aligned rows in its wake. It disengages in headlands, makes its turns and heads out for another pass without an operator in sight.

"We've proven the concept works in ag equipment. The next step is to dig in and commercialize the technology," says Brian McKown, COO at Kinze.

Kinze prototype grain cart
Kinze demonstrated the possibility of commercialized autonomy in the field with its prototype autonomous grain cart system and autonomous planting system.

With the automotive industry rapidly applying this technology, McKown sees the cost of the technology continually being driven down. This increases the chances of the technology becoming commercialized for agriculture.

"We see a fit for this technology for the small family operator that doesn't have an extra driver to the large producers with fleets of combines that can't be held up waiting on a grain cart," he says.

Schick also has seen demonstrations of autonomous sprayer technology being developed for orchards. One master vehicle with an operator serves as storage for spray and fuel. It controls several smaller autonomous satellite vehicles that go out and perform their task and come back to the master vehicle.

"Autonomy would provide some of the same advantages that GPS has in recent years," Schick says. "Equipment can work longer hours and work in harsher conditions. It doesn't affect a machine if it's dark or dusty; it can keep rolling and not become fatigued."

Major Overhaul

Tractors, grain carts and planters in Kinze's demonstrations all look normal — except for the missing operator. And if autonomy continues to catch on, it's a good bet that the row of tractors sitting in front of the farm equipment dealership will start casting some very unfamiliar shadows.

"Autonomy reduces the need for operator safety and comfort features, allowing for significant changes in the design of equipment," Schick says.

Cabs could be done away with entirely, making for a potentially lighter machine.

"We could do some really interesting things with configuration to get more power to the ground per gallon of diesel," Schick says.

Starting Small

Human safety will be one of the biggest issues holding back full autonomy, says Ravi Godbole, global research and special projects manager for AGCO Corp.

"I don't think autonomy is a big technical challenge. In the last 10 years, we've seen driverless automation demonstrations from companies including CNH and John Deere. The bigger issue is — do we want autonomy for the sake of autonomy or for some meaningful utility to farmers," he says. "Also, we can't risk damaging neighboring properties or injuring people with autonomous systems. Therefore, we have coined a new term: 'supervised autonomy.'"

He sees autonomy happening in steps starting with small, light vehicles in high-value ag operations such as greenhouses and orchards where the vehicles can drive on a defined track.

What he calls "Growbots" are another possibility. He envisions these machines operating much like the robotic vacuum cleaner, Roomba.

"Growbots would be small machines that maneuver around large farms day in and day out scouting for things like insects and plant diseases and collecting data," Godbole says.

Remote takeover of a machine also could have a place in the future.

"Just like computers can be taken over by IT for remote help, so could combines or tractors," he says. "If an operator isn't as skilled or is just learning and runs into a problem, his machine could be taken over remotely by an expert operator to help resolve the problem."

A third possibility is the development of such robust sensing and reacting systems that the equipment makes all of the adjustments while the operator just sits in the cab as a watchman, he says.

"The smaller elements of automation, those on the subsystem levels, will develop first with full autonomy being the last thing to be developed," Godbole says. "For one, people still enjoy sitting in the cab of the tractor or combine and getting out in the field. Also, we need time to develop a comfort level with automation."

The Human Equation

But Jim Boak, national sales manager of Salford Farm Machinery, questions if the push toward complete autonomy makes sense culturally or strategically.

"What does a robot contribute to the community?" he asks. "In the rush to embrace technology, we can't forget that this life is about people."

Boak says we have to ask ourselves why we're pushing this level of technology when people are in need of jobs. Also, people may actually be more reliable.

"Satellite systems are controlled by military decisions. If a satellite is scrambled by the military during harvest, the machines have to shut down and wait," he says. "I don't see that system changing to suit the farmer."

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