Autonomous tractor

Driverless tractors and other autonomous equipment will likely usher in a new business model for farmers, experts say. Instead of owning and operating the machinery, they will hire it for various types of field work.

AUSTIN, Texas — As agricultural equipment gains enough “artificial intelligence” to become fully autonomous, it’s likely to change the on-farm role of machinery, experts say.

The cost and complexity of owning and maintaining driverless farm machinery may steer agriculture toward a fee-for-service model instead of growers buying equipment outright, according to experts at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Austin, Texas.

Farmers may instead choose to become specialists in certain operations and then hire autonomous machinery for seasonal tasks instead of buying it, said Scott Shearer, professor and chairman of food, agricultural and biological engineering at Ohio State University.

“The mindset has always been the farmer owns the machinery,” he said on Jan. 20. “I think we will need to reconsider how we manage iron in the traditional sense.”

The historic trend toward larger machines that can cover more ground may also diminish as equipment becomes fully self-operating, Shearer said.

Building bigger tractors, for example, makes sense when they’re dependent on a human operator who becomes more productive as their size increases.

However, with autonomous farm vehicles, people will likely shift to supervising multiple machines operating 24 hours a day instead of individuals directly operating them. At that point, smaller vehicles can be just as effective while reducing labor.

An added benefit would be decreased soil compaction, which would improve crop yields, Shearer said.

The turning point toward smaller size will come when farm machinery can run entirely without direct human control, he said. “I don’t think we’ll see small autonomous equipment until we take the operator off the equipment.”

The prospect of autonomous machines operating on farms isn’t in the realm of science fiction, as nearly 30 companies across the world are close to commercializing self-operating farm equipment, Shearer said.

One company has already manufactured 20 tractors that it intends to rent out. They are expected to drastically reduce the annual cost of such operations as spraying, he said.

For machines that still rely on human operators, the interface that growers use to operate equipment is already evolving, said Chad Colby, owner of Colby Ag Tech.

Farmers who have grown accustomed to a specific brand of machinery are typically confused when encountering the controls of another make of equipment, he said.

Manufacturers are now looking to replace steering wheels and similar manual controls with touch screens that are immediately intuitive, he said.

“It works as easily as my smart phone,” Colby said.

It will be worthwhile for farmers to spend more on machinery that will leave less room for operator error, he said. Ensuring that equipment will perform optimally regardless of who’s running it will pay dividends by reducing waste.

Avoiding even “one percent yield loss pays for that automation pretty quickly,” Shearer added.

Aside from machinery that performs field operations, agriculture is also witnessing advances in equipment that monitors and analyzes crops.

Testing equipment is being developed that can detect a plant disease two weeks before symptoms become visible, Shearer said.

Such equipment is also shrinking and becoming more efficient, he said. “It used to be we took tissue samples to the lab. Now we take the lab to the field.”

While the outlook for agricultural technology is inspiring, experts say the industry does face constraints in adoption.

Obviously, when crop prices are low and farmers don’t have available money to invest, adoption rates suffer, Shearer said. “When something has to give, it’s going to be new equipment.”

Another problem in some rural areas is a lack of high-speed broadband internet, Shearer said.

The installation of underground cables needed for broadband service has been slowed by logistical problems, such as crossing railroad tracks and interstate highways, he said,

For “connectivity” among autonomous machines and computers, though, high speed internet is “a must, or you won’t be able to use it,” he said.

The USDA recognizes the economic need for high-speed internet in rural areas, not just for precision agriculture applications but also for “e-commerce” and other business and educational demands, said Sonny Perdue, the agency’s secretary.

“It has become more than a luxury,” Perdue said during a separate presentation. “It has become a necessity in the 21st century.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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