Where there’s muck there’s robotics

When we hear the terms ‘autonomous’ and ‘assisted driving,’ we naturally think of classic vehicles like cars and trucks. However, the push towards machine operation isn’t only taking place on the world’s streets and motorways. Big changes are also coming to the farm, as there are many difficulties and inefficiencies in agriculture that can be addressed by autonomous solutions.

One provider of such solutions is Silicon Valley-based Blue River Technology. The company currently has two products, LettuceBot and See & Spray. These are essentially tractor attachments; LettuceBot ‘thins,’ or removes under-performing leaves to encourage growth of healthier ones, while See & Spray emits precise and accurate doses of herbicide to help kill weeds.

In traditional farming, spraying is done by area, using a vast quantity of the needed substance. However, according to Blue River’s vice-president of business development Ben Chostner, this: “Fails to address the inherent variability in needs from plant to plant, and is often a significant waste of chemicals and money. By applying herbicide only to the weeds. See & Spray machines can improve efficacy while using up to 90% less herbicide.”

According to him, the world’s farmers spend around $50Bn (£39.29Bn) per year on pesticides and $150Bn (£118Bn) on fertilizer. In a low-margin business, like agriculture, saving on costs can be critical and these machines promise to slice those expenses dramatically.

Another young American company, Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC), is focused on taking that concept one big step further. ATC aims to develop fully autonomous vehicles (such as tractors) that perform such functions. Doing so involves incorporating a batch of technology including sensors, GPS navigation, and electronic transmission. These are bundled into a solution that can not only drive itself but do so with near-pinpoint accuracy – which is important because no farmer wants their spraying or harvesting activities to miss the mark.

In the company’s promotional video, it puts the cost of a traditional tractor at around $170,000, while one of their autonomous versions should run about $80,000 owing to efficiencies in base cost ($20,000 vs. $40,000), driver pay, fuel expenses, and maintenance.

At the moment, ATC’s solutions are used only for the modification of existing farm machinery from incumbent equipment makers. That will change – the firm is currently developing self-propelled sprayers. 

Although CEO Kraig Schultz is not convinced that the farm is on the brink of 100% vehicle automation, he believes growers of higher-margin crops will eagerly embrace autonomy. “I think you will see high-value crops like fresh produce move more quickly because labour is a much higher percentage of the total costs of production,” he says.

Although America is pocketed with a great many farms large and small, it’s not the only country where assisted/autonomous agriculture is making progress. In Europe, an EU-funded research effort into precision farming called USER-PA resulted in the development of an autonomous tractor at the UK’s Harper Adams University.

That programme resulted in the birth of Pomona, in which a team of researchers kitted out a John Deere tractor into an autonomous farming machine. Pomona’s functionality illustrates an early trend in autonomous/assisted farming – most of the products currently being developed or already on the market are designed to specialise in one specific aspect of farming. According to the Pomona project’s Sam Wane, his baby is: “Particularly suited to orchard use, where regular measurements of the growth canopy can inform the farmer of the optimal time for treatment and harvest.”

As we’ve seen in the traditional tech industry, many of the players in autonomous and assisted farm vehicles are early-stage companies but there are, of course, a number of well-established big firms that want in on the action, too. John Deere is currently researching autonomous solutions in its advanced technology unit, although the company does not yet have a major self-driving vehicle product in the segment just yet.

A big rival that seems closer is farming equipment maker Case IH, a division of European engineering conglomerate CNH Industrial. Case IH has developed an autonomous tractor concept vehicle. In contrast to the cute Pomona, Case IH’s tractor is a big, sleek vehicle that looks like something out of a science-fiction story.

The concept tractor allows its owner to either operate it with full autonomy, monitoring it via a mobile device, or use a driver to guide it while utilising certain assisted features. It has several different functionalities useful for the growth and harvesting of crops. Meanwhile, the craft’s sensors are powerful enough to guide it around the field at night.

This is important, because in contrast to a human farmer, the vehicle can work around the clock. “Planters or seeders need to be in the field as much as possible to take advantage of ideal weather and soil conditions,” says Case IH’s Robert Zemenchik. “Autonomy with remote supervision technology allows for continuous 24-hour per day field operation during key parts of the growing season.”

Precision spraying, automated harvesting and night operation are only three of the many advantages promised by the autonomous/assisted farm technology currently being developed. The next time we drive by a large farming operation, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a self-guided vehicle or several working the fields.


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