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Soil Compaction May Fuel Smaller Implements

Ever wish you could have an employee who works 24/7, takes no vacation or sick days, and costs just $22,000?

Of course not. You couldn’t find an employee to work that long or inexpensively even in the most remote third-world country. Furthermore, you couldn’t even do that.

Baxter can, though.

Manufacturers are using this collaborative robot to do monotonous tasks currently done by human labor and run their operations more efficiently.  For nonstop work, the cost is just $22,000 for the unit. (For more information on Baxter, go to http://www.rethinkrobotics.com/baxter/.)

Scott Shearer, an Ohio State University agricultural engineer, sees the same trend occurring in agriculture. Long-term, he foresees small (50- to 60-horsepower) autonomous tractors doing routine field operations like planting. 

“I think this is the future of agriculture,” he says.

One reason: Much lower soil compaction occurs than with what currently occurs with heavy high-compaction potential implements like large tractors. 

“I think we suffer from major soil structure problems,” Shearer says. 

When you ask farmers why they buy such big machines, they’ll say because manufacturers make them. And when you ask manufacturers why they build such big machines, they’ll say because why farmers want them."

Deep-tillage often used in the Midwest can only mitigate deep compaction down to 16 inches. The trend toward larger equipment drives compaction levels down below that. Compaction concerns with fully autonomous 50- to 60-horsepower tractors would decrease. 

Smaller autonomous equipment would also enable farmers to better access technological improvements. 

“Realistically, tractors (today) are obsolete in terms of technology before the mechanical life ends,” says Shearer. “Farmers today pay for a lot of mechanical life they will never realize.”

The quicker technology obsolescence with manufacturing robots like Baxter — often around three years — will likely also extend to farm implements. Thus, farmers will be able to update less expensive but more technically advanced tractors and other farm implements.

Challenges

Smaller autonomous tractors would not cover as much area as today’s larger tractors. Multiple tractors would be necessary to ensure timely field operations.

Still, autonomous tractors ensure 24/7 field operations. It’s harder to do that with larger person-operated tractors, even with auto steer. 

“Running 24/7 changes the dynamic,” says Shearer. 

More but lighter tractors also spread field breakdown risk. 

“If anything happens to a 400-horsepower tractor, the whole operation stops,” says Shearer. “With four or five (smaller autonomous) machines, one can stop, but the three to four others keep going.”

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