Forage 2017: Robotic tractors in agriculture’s future
The homesteaders of the late 1800s who tilled the soil with a single-bottom plow pulled by a horse could have never guessed that one day farmers would have access to robotic equipment to grow their crops.
The industry got a glimpse of that future during the Farm Progress Show held in Boone, Iowa last August, where Autonomous Solutions, Inc. and CNH Industrial unveiled concepts for autonomous tractors. Two concept models were introduced at the event including a cabless Case IH Magnum and a New Holland T8.
“These concept tractors have the ability to run without drivers for tilling, planting and seeding, which truly allows the farmer to work 24/7,” said Matt Nielsen, Autonomous Solutions, Inc. corporate communications manager. “Although the autonomous tractor can’t hook up to an implement on its own, the bulk of the work is doable without human interaction, thanks to this autonomous technology.”
During harvest season, when conditions are right, the pressure is on to get the crops planted, and Laura Overall, CNH Industrial corporate communications manager, said these tractors can help tackle time-sensitive tasks.
“Farmers will be able to make the most of optimal windows by working around the clock with no down time or loss in productivity — such as when planting, with subsequent benefits in terms of productivity and yield,” said Overall. “They will be able to remotely control and monitor these concept autonomous tractors from wherever they are (either from a desktop computer or a portable handheld tablet interface) and make decisions based on real time data — for example if the supervisor is checking his cows and gets a weather alert the tractor could be stopped or redeployed.”
With California’s recent passage of farm worker overtime pay regulations, producers may be looking for cost-saving solutions to get the bulk of the work done, without having to keep as many employees on the pay roll.
“The cost of labor continues to be a large expense for farmers, and with the recent passage of the California overtime pay law, things just got even more difficult for farmers,” Nielsen said. “These tractors could be a good alternative to continue operations in a cost effective manner. As we continue to see labor costs go up, these will be positioned to help alleviate those, especially on large scale farm operations.”
Overall added, “Some farmers will be able to overcome a shortage of skilled labor at key times of the year. They will be able to redeploy labor into value-added tasks. They will be able to coordinate a number of autonomous vehicles from one central station and manage through one interface.”
The tractor concepts come from the integration of Autonomous Solutions, Inc.’s autonomous hardware and software and CNH Industrial’s advanced platform. The designs of the CaseIH and New Holland tractors differ slightly, but both offer the same performance capabilities.
“The autonomous concept technology which is used on the concept Case IH and New Holland tractors is the same and was developed by the CNH Industrial Innovation Group in conjunction with our technology provider ASI,” said Overall. “The difference between the two concepts is that the concept Case IH Magnum was developed without a cab — and represents the ultimate expression of autonomous technology. The New Holland concept T8 NHDRIVE machine was presented in cabbed format, demonstrating the flexibility of the offering — the tractor can be used in autonomous mode when applications allow and used as a standard tractor to complete tasks which are not yet suitable for automation – such as high speed road transport.”
These tractors are standard tractor size and can operate in any field, no matter how big or small. While the tractors can’t do every task a farmer must tackle, they can do the heavy lifting, which offers many benefits.
“The autonomous tractors offer enhanced safety as we’re removing the need for a human to run heavy machinery,” said Nielsen. “The tractors allow for obstacle detection or avoidance, such as a rock or fence, and once detected, the technology alerts the operator and suggests an alternative route, which the operator can then approve from his tablet. Additionally, they allow for tandem field coverage. One tractor can be tilling, and a second can follow closely behind to seed the field.”
The tractors aren’t available in the marketplace yet as there are still challenges to overcome — namely litigation and legislation regarding accidents with robotic vehicles and regulations concerning the safety of these tractors on the road, in the field and in interactions with people. As such, no price points have been set, nor have production models been developed to determine where the tractors will be manufactured.
“We are currently looking for potential pilot farms where these concepts can be further tested. Interested parties should visit the Case IH and New Holland websites to take a survey on their perception of autonomous technology and register their interest if they would like to propose their farm as a potential test location.”
“It’s certainly a leading edge, new technology,” added Nielsen. “Some will adapt to it, and others won’t.”