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Is the future autonomous?

In her recent story, “Remote-Controlled Farm,” [September, page 42], Laurie Bedord discusses the future of autonomous machinery, outlining how, someday, tractors could ultimately drive themselves. There was quite a bit of feedback regarding that idea, and Farmers for the Future members didn't shy away from offering their opinions.

Some folks say it's definitely the future, while others say it's not. There are those in the middle, though, who say they feel it's likely the future of farming, but there are a lot of kinks to work out in the technology before it becomes reality. And others say that, even with all the great technology in the world, the human element won't ever be able to be eliminated from field operations like tillage and running the grain cart.

Network member Tony Eickman says, “I would not buy an autonomous vehicle or the technology for it for the simple fact that I have struggled with my GPS just on anhydrous. Knowing my luck, I'd get a solar storm right about the time I send coordinates, and I'd watch the tractor and implement plunge into the East Nishnabotna. I would rather hire a capable person to drive if I had to.”

A lot of kinks to work out

Auto steer is a wonderful thing and has helped with efficiency, says Ian Plagge. “It is also easier on the driver to watch other things and to not tire as easily. As for going to the next level, I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Let me first have the auto steer make turns at the ends of the rows before I step out of the cab!”

Kevin Myers thinks it would either lower quality of work or be more work than most people think. “What if the automated equipment is planting and gets trash balled up on one row? What is the computer going to do about that?” he asks. “If it can sense it and stop, I'm still going to have to drive out to the field just to clean it up. It will be a long time – if ever – before the farmer is taken out of the picture. It would take some serious faith to turn my back on several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment. I feel just a little guilty when I'm using GPS and think about what my dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather had to do. Imagine how guilty I would feel if I were watching football while the tractor did its own work.”

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