Piggybacking on driverless-car technology, agricultural machinery giants and startups alike are working to revolutionize farming. The next generation of farm equipment will include tractors and combines that drive themselves, allowing the farmer to monitor planting and harvesting remotely.
From India’s Mahindra & Mahindra to America’s John Deere, the automation will eventually include equipment that can plant, fertilize and spray pesticides efficiently and remotely. Seem far-fetched? Current John Deere tractors and combines free the driver in the cabin so they can monitor the crops as well as adjust pesticide, water and soil levels. “The more we can automate with computers, with data science and laser-like actions, [the more it] will help save the farmer a ton of money and make production more sustainable,” said John Stone, senior vice president in charge of development at Deere & Co.
Meanwhile, CNH Industrial, the parent of Case and New Holland farm equipment announced “Rethink Productivity” as the new tagline for the brand to demonstrate a new focus on future innovations that help producers achieve High-Efficiency Farming practices. As a demonstration of this approach, the brand also unveiled a sleek, new autonomous tractor concept vehicle at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Ames, Iowa. Prior to the concept vehicle’s unveiling, company executives presented a video demonstration of the tractor tilling and planting on land in the southeastern United States earlier that summer.
Case IH and CNH Industrial’s Innovation Group based the cabless autonomous concept on an existing Case IH Magnum™ tractor with reimagined styling. The vehicle was built for a fully interactive interface to allow for remote monitoring of preprogrammed operations. The onboard system automatically accounts for implement widths and plots the most efficient paths depending on the terrain, obstructions and other machines in use in the same field. The remote operator can supervise and adjust pathways via a desktop computer or portable tablet interface.
Through the use of radar, LiDAR (light imaging, detection, and ranging) and onboard video cameras, the vehicle can sense stationary or moving obstacles in its path and will stop on its own until the operator, notified by audio and visual alerts, assigns a new path. The vehicle will also stop immediately if GPS signal or position data is lost, or if the manual stop button is pushed. Machine tasks can also be modified in real time with remote interface or automatic weather warnings.
“An autonomous tractor like this could seamlessly integrate into an existing farm machinery fleet, with minimal operational changes,” said Leo Bose, Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) marketing manager. “Multiple autonomous vehicles could be put to work in one field or separate fields, on the same tasks or consecutive ones. It could allow a person working with no employees to operate multiple tractors or could complement very large operations that have challenges finding ample skilled workers.”
As to be expected in any evolving new technology, there are problems – most notably with the sensors and GPS needed to steer around obstacles and the ability to read soil and slope conditions in the field. Automation indeed is coming to the farm as one industry report estimates the demand for this new equipment in the next five years to be $45 Billion.