Robots take the wheel: Autonomous farm machines hit the field

A SwarmFarm robot spraying on a farm in Australia. (Bloomberg)
A SwarmFarm robot spraying on a farm in Australia. (Bloomberg)

Robots are taking over farms faster than anyone saw coming.

The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available, which means machines will be able to completely take over a multitude of tasks.

Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and specialized equipment will be able to spray, plant, plow and weed cropland.

And it’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted thanks to small start-ups and more established ag equipment manufacturers.

In Ames, Smart Ag is recruiting growers both in and out of state for a fall pilot program for AutoCart, a software platform through which farmers autonomously can operate an existing grain cart tractor from the combine cab.

The driverless technology uses AI machine learning to perceive obstacles in the cart’s path and comes with a navigation system that lets it chart a route to a pre-programmed point in the field.

Colin Hurd, founder and CEO of Smart Ag, said he expects AutoCart will be fully launched in early 2020, with a projected cost between $40,000 and $50,000.

Hurd said not every farm might be interested in using AutoCart specifically for their operations, but autonomous machines in general likely will see broader use in the future.


“You can run longer hours, operate equipment more efficiently and — if you’re a very large farm — it gives you oversight you don’t necessarily have today,” Hurd said. “Not everyone is going to jump on the train right away, but the more progressive guys are already knocking on the door, saying, ‘We need this.’”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said current advances in autonomous farm equipment are a “good indicator” that the technology will become more widespread moving forward, though not ubiquitous.

“This is not technology that will be adopted by everyone,” he said. “It will have to make sense in their operation.”

Naig said automation could cut a wider swath across agriculture production than just crops and branch into other areas including livestock, food processing and production.

Sam Funk, director of agriculture analytics and research with the Iowa Farm Bureau, said farmers might not immediately start using autonomous equipment unless they have a clear idea of the payoff.

“It’s very difficult to think about making that type of investment unless there’s a return that’s almost immediate because it’s a financial challenge and they’re trying to manage their way through this challenging time,” he said.

A technical understanding of autonomous equipment could become important for the next generation of farmworkers, Funk said, though he does not believe the machines will replace the people in the fields.

“Just because a tractor might be able to go into a field and drive itself ... it still needs to get there somehow,” he said.

Other start-ups are making headways in Canada and Australia.


While industry leaders Moline, Ill.-based Deere and Co. and CNH Industrial, headquartered in London, haven’t said when they’ll release similar offerings, Saskatchewan’s Dot Technology already has sold some so-called power platforms for fully mechanized spring planting.

In Australia, SwarmFarm Robotics is leasing weed-killing robots that also can do tasks such as mow and spread.

The companies say their machines are smaller and smarter than the gigantic machinery they aim to replace.

Sam Bradford, a farm manager at Arcturus Downs in Australia’s Queensland state, was an early adopter as part of a pilot program for SwarmFarm last year. He used four robots, each about the size of a truck, to kill weeds.

In years past, Bradford had used a 120-foot wide, 16-ton spraying machine that “looks like a massive praying mantis.”

It would blanket the field in chemicals, he said.

But the robots were more precise. They distinguished the dull-brown color of the farm’s paddock from green foliage, and targeted chemicals directly at the weeds.

It’s a task the farm does two to three times a year over 20,000 acres.

With the robots, Bradford said he can save 80 percent of his chemical costs.

“The savings on chemicals is huge, but there’s also savings for the environment from using less chemicals and you’re also getting a better result in the end,” said Bradford, who’s run the farm for about 10 years.

Surrounding rivers run out to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s eastern cost, making the farm particularly sensitive over its use of chemicals, he said.


Costs savings have become especially crucial as a multi-year rout for prices depresses farm incomes and tightens margins. The Bloomberg Grains Spot Index is down more than 50 percent since its peak in 2012.

Meanwhile, advances in seed technology, fertilizers and other crop inputs has led to soaring yields and oversupply.

Producers are eager to find any edge possible at a time when the U.S.-China trade war is disrupting the usual flow of agriculture exports.

Farmers need to get to the next level of profitability and efficiency in farming, and “we’ve lost sight of that with engineering that doesn’t match the agronomy,” said SwarmFarm’s CEO Andrew Bate.

“Robots flip that on its head. What’s driving adoption in agriculture is better farming systems and better ways to grow crops.”

In Saskatchewan, the first commercially sold autonomous tractors made by Dot are hitting fields this spring.

The Dot units won’t be completely on their own this year — farmers who bought equipment as part of a limited release are required to watch them at all times.

But after this trial run, the producers will be able to let the equipment run on its own starting next year.


That will open up a lot of time for the growers who will no longer need to sit behind the steering wheel.

Farmers are always managing multiple tasks, said Leah Olson-Friesen, CEO of Dot.

“When you look at the amount of intelligence that’s sitting in the cab, they could be on the phone doing different things or outside of the cab — there’s some real opportunities there,” Olson-Friesen said.

But farmers do more than steer when they’re in the cabs of their tractors, said Alex Purdy, head of John Deere Labs and director of precision agriculture technology.

Deere hasn’t yet released fully autonomous equipment because the technology that’s out there still isn’t good enough to replace people, he said.

Machinery that uses automation for tasks right now is more beneficial to farmers than autonomous equipment, Purdy said.

Artificial intelligence, deep learning and advances in computer vision are going to transform agricultural machinery even further, he said.

“Automation is a never-ending journey — there’s always something that will get better over time, and there’s so much opportunity that we’re prioritizing automation over autonomy,” Purdy said.

A modern tractor does thousands of tasks, and to provide a fully autonomous solution, a deep understanding of each of those tasks is needed to automate them, said Brett McClelland, product manager of autonomous vehicles at CNH Industrial.


While CNH Industrial in 2016 revealed a sleek, aggressive-looking prototype to much fanfare, the product still is in test pilots and not yet commercially available.

For some tasks, current equipment is oversized, and smaller machines might be able to successfully scout a field, for example.

But they won’t be able to prepare the ground for planting carrots, where machines rip up soil 40 inches deep, McClelland said.

“Farmers have a demand for productivity, and they’ll take it in whatever way we can give it, and technology is the new way,” he said.

Still, bigger won’t necessarily be better going forward, according to Ohio State University professor Scott Shearer. Modern tractors can weigh more than 50,000 pounds, which compresses the soil, making it less productive.

Alleviating that compaction could increase crop yields by as much as 7 percent.

Increases in precision technology also will allow for smaller robots, as was the case for farmer Bradford’s fields where weed-killing spay was applied only where it was needed.

“To survive, farmers are always having to try to become more efficient and to keep costs down, while improving yields,” Bradford said.

“The way that’s going to be achieved is in accuracy, by being timely with the operations and applying inputs directly where they are needed, rather than with a broad blanket approach to large areas.

“That’s where these robots will work.”

Bloomberg News contributed to the article.

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