Autonomous machines have been around awhile. Consider your coffee pot. Today, having fresh coffee when you wake up is as simple as programming it the night before to be made by 6:30 a.m.
Companies have created autonomous machine prototypes that are efficient and precise. Today, many are hands-free and remotely operated. The use of autonomous machinery is a slow evolution, progressing with time.
“It’s a technology evolution that will evolve with the needs of the customers,” says Brad Lukac, Case IH Magnum global product manager.
Autonomous machinery can be described as driverless tractors, unmanned planters or unmanned aerial vehicles. These machines can be remotely controlled from a different location, and can be programmed to follow certain paths and even collect specific data.
Case IH has five categories that all agricultural machinery falls under: guidance, coordination and optimization, operator-assisted autonomy, supervised autonomy, and full autonomy.
Case IH revealed its autonomous concept tractor in 2016 and has continued to make improvements. The vehicle can travel on premapped roads, stop for an obstacle, and wait to move or alert someone remotely to help move around the obstacle.
It can plot the most efficient in-field routes. The machine can operate alone in the field fully autonomous, or the farmer can opt to use a cab with the automated machine.
Case IH isn’t alone in this machinery shift. John Deere recently partnered with a Netherlands-based company named Precision Makers, which specializes in autonomous technology. Precision Makers is affiliated with Dutch Power and is working on autonomous mowing technology for the golf and turf industry.
Most machinery today has some type of automation; almost all tractors have some sort of GPS technology, which is a step on the way to full automation.
Aligning with the CNH stages of autonomy, the adoption of fully autonomous machinery will happen gradually, says Dennis Buckmaster, an Extension ag engineer at Purdue University.
For machinery to be completely autonomous, it needs anomaly detection, according to Buckmaster, and that anomaly detection isn’t trivial. It is tough to think and design around all things that might not occur correctly. A machine needs to be able to properly register these issues in the field and notify someone remotely.
The use of autonomous vehicles in agriculture is a question of when, not if, says Roger Tormoehlen, also a Purdue Extension ag engineer.
Tormoehlen spoke from experience on the use of autonomous machines in agriculture. “I grew up on a dairy farm, and it was in the ’90s,” he begins. “We had a feeding system that was essentially, to a certain level, a robot. The cow had an ID tag around its neck, and when it walked into the feeding area, the computer read that tag and dispensed an amount of feed based on milk production level.”
There is a question on what the future of autonomous machines might be. Will farms have one large autonomous machine or multiple small machines?
“There are certain infrastructure elements that you need in order for equipment to be autonomous,” Buckmaster says. “Whether you have a four-, six- or 12-row unit, you will need to have a camera [or cameras], communication package, and actuators to steer and control.”
With multiple autonomous planters, each machine would have needs and requirements. No one will have 24 one-row planters, but not everyone needs one 24-row planter, he notes. The concept of multiple machines per farm is on the radar of large companies.
“That type of concept, let’s say, it’ll be enabled, but it will be the customers who decide how far it is taken,” Lukac says. “It’s all based on their own local economics, and it only works for certain applications. There are still going to be applications that are out there that require super high-power tractors.”
SPRAY AND WEED: This is the Purdue student entry in the 2019 AgBot competition. It identified weeds, sprayed them and tilled — all without someone punching buttons or pulling levers.
The Purdue AgBot team has been participating in a challenge where they create their own machine to register and spray herbicides or deploy a rotator device when weeds have been detected. The team focused on making a machine pulled by a UTV that would be used by a small farming operation.
In May, the team’s machine was able to detect a weed and dispense the proper herbicide needed to eradicate the weed during competition at the Purdue Agronomy Center Research and Education. This is a big step into the future of agriculture and impacts what the next generation will be able to make, Tormoehlen says.
Farming is a labor-intensive business. Some farmers struggle to find seasonal workers, which makes for a longer process.
“A common struggle is to find good labor, as more and more people are removed from the farm and production agriculture,” says Noah Poynter of Poynter Family Farms.
The use of autonomous machinery is not to cut down labor forces or to “take jobs”; it is meant to be useful, he notes.
“It’ll solve the problem of the lack of skilled labor,” Lukac says. “That is the problem it’s meant to solve. It’s not at all meant to reduce the labor requirement, because that’s not the problem in the industry.”
Autonomous machinery could potentially solve some labor force issues.
“It could cut down on labor in the field, which would allow us to have more time to focus on working on other things,” says Poynter.
The introduction of autonomous machinery leaves a lot of uncertainty, including the liability issues of not having something operated by humans.
“I think the insurance industry, the finance industry and all the auxiliaries around the customer are all going to have to change, for sure,” Lukac says. “We’re engaged with all the different committees and the standards committee that insurance companies are engaged with. We’re helping formulate some of the standards that are out there and safety protocols, too.”
Technology has been evolving for years, from basic household objects to farming equipment. There is still a long way to go for autonomous machinery, but it’s approaching. Each time a new piece of technology is added to equipment — something as common as a navigation system — it’s a step closer to full autonomy, experts say.
Delaloza is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University.