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3 Obstacles Ahead for Autonomous Farm Equipment

Until ag overcomes the three main obstacles below, fully autonomous tech won’t go prime time.   

1. Technology isn’t quite ready. “Auto steer relies only on RTK GPS technology,” says Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, IDTechEx Ltd. Fully autonomous tractors require a number of different and often overlapping sensors to navigate properly if GPS is not available and to avoid collision. So RTK will not be enough. “The technology is ready at the prototype level, and the components required (lidar, sonar, radar, etc.) are ready. However, the system requires several more years of actual field trials. Components like lidar are also quite expensive,” he says.

From Lee Redden’s perspective, the key to unlocking a viable, safe solution is perception systems. “Most perception systems in ag today run a pretty simple algorithm that looks to see if the path is physically clear,” says the cofounder of Blue River Technology. “What they are not doing is detecting and classifying individual objects.”

2. Legislation is lagging. It will take time to address this as well as other issues such as liability and insurance. “We need to look closely at the regulatory issues preventing agriculture from moving forward with this technology,” says Steve Gerrish, cofounder of the agBOT Challenge. “Knowing liability concerns are paramount, and some of the agBOT teams are collaborating to make self-regulation recommendations on drones and autonomous vehicles for farm safety.”

3. Trust is a factor. “Our anecdotal evidence, given to us by many suppliers of early-stage robots, reveals that farmers still prefer to remain in charge,” says Ghaffarzadeh. “Some tasks are critical to a farmer’s success. So these vehicles must first become 100% reliable.”

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