Could autonomous vehicles be the next big ag revolution?
April 4, 2022 by Chris McCullough
It’s fair to say that big-name corporations are queuing up to back numerous automated agricultural vehicle concepts that seem to emerge from nowhere these days. However, there are a number of questions floating around that investors should really consider before diving headfirst into such significant investments.
The main question is: how many of these concepts will actually become commercially produced and available to purchase? Plus, by the time they do reach the market, will their technology be out of date?
Farmers know autonomous vehicles offer a huge solution to the global issue of a lack of labour availability and that they can increase efficiency on the farm when it comes to cultivation, planting and harvest, but at what cost? Fifty years ago, farmers would have laughed at the idea of robots working on farms, but today automation is already playing a huge role in modern agriculture.
Robots can be found in barns milking cows, feeding livestock and scraping up manure. Outdoors they are becoming very popular seeding and weeding crops with autonomous tractors striving to be the next big player in the market. Although the idea of a ‘driverless tractor’ has been around since the 1940s, it is only within the last decade that there has been a real push to develop and bring to production such a vehicle.
Of course they will not be for everyone, nor will they suit the farming landscapes of many countries, but they will find their place in some of the bigger farms around the world. Seeding and weeding robots, however, are more suitable for smaller farming systems and are already at work in many countries. The big requirement to ensure many of these autonomous systems actually run is a strong connectivity to satellites and wireless communications, which also may provide a barrier to their use in some regions.
Nevertheless there have been a few autonomous/robotic systems that have been launched recently including a tractor from John Deere that can work independently, once the farmer drives it to the field.
Earlier this year John Deere launched its new, fully autonomous 8R tractor that can be completely controlled in the field by a mobile phone. Using CES in Las Vegas as its launchpad, John Deere captivated the audience and insisted this new auto 8R is not a concept tractor and will be commercially available to customers later this year. The machine uses John Deere’s 8R tractor with a TruSet enabled chisel plough, GPS guidance system and new advanced technologies. The goal, says John Deere, is to provide technology that can help farmers feed a global population that is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050.
With less land available to grow this food coupled with a shrinking skilled labour pool and growing issues created by climate change, autonomous technology will play a key role in driving agriculture efficiency forward.
Diving into the technology on the new auto John Deere 8R, the tractor has six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance.
Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 milliseconds and determines if the machine continues to move or stops, depending on if an obstacle is detected.
The autonomous tractor is also continuously checking its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to, and is accurate to within less than one inch.
All a farmer has to do to use the new tractor is drive it to the field and configure it for autonomous operation. Using John Deere Operations Centre Mobile, they can swipe from left to right to start the machine. While the machine is working, the farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks while monitoring the machine’s status from their mobile device.
This mobile technology from John Deere provides access to live video, images, data, and metrics, and allows a farmer to adjust speed, depth, and more. In the event of any job quality anomalies or machine health issues, farmers will be notified remotely and can make adjustments to optimise the performance of the machine.
Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere, said in a statement: “You fast forward a century from the first tractors and you’ll find some of the most advanced robotic machines are being used on the farm to feed the world. If you visit a farm, you’ll see as much technology in the field as you will in Silicon Valley.
“This precise location-sensing technology enables farmers to place seeds, spread nutrients and harvest their crops without having to touch the steering wheel.
“Farming is incredibly exhausting mentally and physically. GPS technology allows farmers to spend their time in the cab of a tractor looking at the real-time data they are collecting during the job they are doing and making adjustments,” he said.
German agricultural machinery manufacturer Claas has invested in a Dutch robotic start-up company to step into the autonomous tractor market. The company has entered into a cooperative venture with AgXeed BV and acquired a minority shareholding in its international funding round as a mark of their commitment.
AgXeed will be bringing its autonomous AgBot to fields, pastures and specialty crops alongside a full suite of vehicle peripherals. The aim for this autonomous field robot with diesel-electric drive, wheels or crawler tracks, up to 156hp and standard three-point linkage, is to assist farmers with a wide range of tasks. Optional crawler tracks with belt widths from 300 to 910mm, combined with a low maximum weight of six tonnes, without ballast, makes the AgBot very soil-friendly. The vehicle also features an adjustable track width, load-sensing hydraulics and a linkage with a lift capacity of up to eight tonnes. An electric PTO, independent of the engine speed, and external high-voltage connections are optionally available. The electric equipment includes all the technology required for hazard and obstacle detection, in addition to an RTK steering system.
Switching attention to robots and one of the latest machines to be unveiled is a new weeding robot that uniquely uses lasers to exterminate the enemy manufactured by Carbon Robotics in the US.
The Seattle based company’s third generation weeder uses a combination of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and laser technology to safely and effectively drive through crop fields to identify, target and eliminate weeds.
Farmers who operate automated robots have the ability to reduce their herbicides use, reduce labour and costs while at the same time improve crop yields. Carbon Robotics CEO and founder Paul Mikesell said in a statement: “AI and deep learning technology are creating efficiencies across a variety of industries and we’re excited to apply it to agriculture. Farmers, and others in the global food supply chain, are innovating now more than ever to keep the world fed. Our goal at Carbon Robotics is to create tools that address their most challenging problems.” •