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How Automation Will Transform Farming

When Kyler Laird imagines the future of his 1,700-acre Indiana farm, he sees robots playing a major role. 

“I’m a one-man operation. I need this technology because I really can’t afford to hire anyone. Besides, finding a skilled operator who is willing to work 24 hours a day for three or four days a year is ludicrous,” he says. “I can’t hire that, but I can make that very inexpensively.” 

For the last two growing seasons Laird, who has a master’s degree in ag engineering, has developed autonomous machines to drill, harvest, and plant his crops. Starting out small, he converted a John Deere lawn tractor into a remotely controlled machine as a trial.

“That tractor gave me enough of a taste for what this technology could do that I knew I had to build a larger version,” he says. “I reworked the steering and added a power clutch to my grandfather’s Massey Ferguson 2745 tractor to allow it to run autonomously.”

Dubbed Tractobot01, he drilled 50 acres of soybeans with it in 2016. “It was impressive to see it running in the field,” Laird says. “I was able to step off the tractor, dig up some seed, and catch it on the way back. It was a good experiment.”

That same year, he also transformed a Challenger MT765 track tractor – Tractobot02 – to pull a grain cart, which totally changed efficiency at harvest.

Next on his list was planting. “I had this notion that whatever was going to pull the planter needed to be small, so I converted a John Deere 6330 tractor,” Laird says. 

As part of the experiment, he wanted to ensure once the tractor delivered his planter to the field, the planter could take it from there. That meant equipping his John Deere 7300 eight-row planter with the latest technology.

“I outfitted Kyler’s planter with Precision Planting’s DeltaForce, vDrive, Furrow Jet, and CleanSweep so he can sit in the seat of the tractor – or not – and have complete confidence that everything is under control,” says Mark Waibel, Solid Rock Ag Solutions in Remington, Indiana. 

This past year, Laird’s new employee – Tractobot03 – planted 535 acres of corn. He admits there were challenges along the way, like breakdowns and technical issues, but the more acres the machine covered, the better it got. “I also noticed I was a lot more aware of what the planter was doing because I was following along beside it or coming up behind it,” he says.

“By automating some of these processes, we eliminate labor as one of the defining issues in producing our food,” says Steve Gerrish, cofounder of the agBOT Challenge, CEO of airBridge, and owner of Gerrish Farms. “It also addresses other issues like soil compaction and the push to use less inputs while increasing efficiencies and yield.”

Kyler Laird

a shifting industry

One approach to address the lack of labor is follow-me systems, which allow a series of unmanned vehicles to be directed by a single manned machine. Companies like Case IH, Fendt (AGCO), John Deere, Kinze Manufacturing, and Yanmar have introduced products. Fully autonomous and even driverless tractors from Autonomous Tractor Corporation, Case IH, Kubota, and Yanmar are also emerging. 

“When we introduced our autonomous concept vehicle in 2016, we wanted to show farmers what the future could look like as well as gauge interest,” says Leo Bose, Case IH AFS harvesting and marketing manager. “It’s not a product launch by any means, but it could certainly lead to one – or several – down the road.”

That, says Gerrish, is where the problem lies.

“Although agriculture has gradually migrated toward farming supervision based on site-specific crop management, the transition toward advanced robotics technology has been sluggish,” he explains. “We need to bring technology and agriculture together so we can set the tone in the development of autonomous farming and bring products to market faster.”

By hosting the agBOT Challenge on his Indiana farm, Gerrish and his team brought together 86 young scientists this past summer to achieve that goal.

Yet, employing robots could have a profound impact on the way we envision ag machinery in the future.

morphed machinery

Over the past several years, equipment has morphed into super-sized machines to enhance productivity. According to a recent report, Agricultural Robots and Drones 2017-2027: Technology, Markets, Players, this approach loses some relevance if machinery becomes autonomous and unmanned. 

Like many in ag, the report sees a transition from large, heavy, fast, and expensive vehicles to fleets of robots. The report’s author, Khasha Ghaffarzadeh with IDTechEx Ltd., says these ag bots would move slowly, giving extra attention to plants. They also would be lightweight, eliminate soil compaction, and be inexpensive to make up for their lower individual productivity.

“Many small robots have been developed at the research level, and a few have been commercially launched and sold. The machine designs are not a done deal yet, and there is still a ways to go,” he says.

That’s because these robots often only work on highly structured farms and on crops with limited height. They take action using mechanical means, which can be slow. Otherwise, they will need to carry tanks of water and chemicals, which adds to size and weight. The cost to capture data is also relatively high compared with other methods like drones. Ultimately, the researcher says, “We are only at the beginning of the beginning.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Deanna Kovar, director, production & precision ag marketing for John Deere. “This is only the beginning of smarter, more precise equipment,” she says of the company’s recent $305 million purchase of Blue River Technology.

Founded in 2011 by Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden, Blue River has designed and integrated computer vision and machine learning in 10% of U.S. lettuce fields. It reduces the use of herbicides by spraying only where weeds are present. The technology is currently being tested in cotton fields. 

“We are using smart machines to image, detect, optimize, and act on every single plant in the field,” says Redden.

“This opportunity will allow us to work together to figure out how we can apply that technology to John Deere sprayers and to other equipment and once again transform agriculture,” says Kovar.

consequences for farmers

The meaning of being in charge will also change, as farmers shift from driving to directing equipment remotely. 

While over half of the participants surveyed by Case IH say they could see a fully autonomous machine as a good fit for tasks like spring tillage, turning over chores like planting was another matter. “Farmers weren’t comfortable turning that task over to a fully autonomous vehicle, because it sets the stage for their entire season,” says Bose. 

“Are we going to replace farmers with fully autonomous technology? I don’t believe so, but these vehicles do have a place in agriculture,” says Mark Young, CTO of The Climate Corporation. “This technology can help farmers be more efficient. It can start to ease up the resource constraints.”

If Ghaffarzadeh’s projections are correct, farmers will have to wait at least another five to seven years before a fully autonomous machine shows up for work in farm fields.

Already ahead of the curve, Laird plans to employ another fully autonomous tractor at harvest and have at least three machines planting over the next couple of years. 

agBOT Challenge

When the agBOT Challenge launched in 2016, its mission was to bring a fresh set of eyes to the way crops are produced. 

“This contest merges technology and agriculture to develop unmanned equipment,” says Steve Gerrish, one of the masterminds behind the event. “The general public wants to be involved in how we are growing our food, so let’s invite them to be a part of the process.”

What emerged were solutions that rethink how corn is planted.

“Some teams came at the problem with the belief that if there is no need for a person, there’s no need for a seat. If there is no need for a seat, why do we need the tractor?” asks Mark Young, CTO, The Climate Corporation. “When you take away the tractor, now you have to figure out how to make the planter move.”

The result – a self-propelled planter – changes the entire economics and logistics of how farmers put a crop in the ground. 

“A self-contained autonomous planter can be produced much, much cheaper than a tractor and a planter,” he says. “It also weighs far less than a traditional setup, so you don’t have to worry about compaction. The estimated price point for one of these machines may be $50,000 vs. $500,000 for a tractor and planter.”

“We used to pull combines with tractors. It was the same with sprayers,” says Mark Waibel, Solid Rock Ag Solutions in Remington, Indiana. “Both of those morphed into their own machines.”

We are seeing a similar transition in the baler industry with Vermeer’s introduction of the RZ5, a self-propelled round baler.

“I think we will see this with planters, as well,” Waibel says. 

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