The race to autonomy
Today's driverless tractors still need an operator to keep the tractor on task. But for 20 years, farm equipment manufacturers have been working on building a precision platform with GPS navigation to provide tractors with pure self-driving automation. The ultimate goal is to offer farmers driverless equipment that is smart - or autonomous - so it can perform tasks completely independent of human intervention.
The farm equipment industry has spent a couple of decades moving toward developing autonomous equipment, and the race to commercially market that equipment has recently moved into high gear.
In 2016, both New Holland and Case IH introduced autonomous tractor prototypes, which the companies are still testing in the field. At the same time, John Deere signaled its commitment to autonomous machinery when it acquired Blue River Technology - a company that specializes in computer vision and machine learning, key technologies for developing smart farm equipment.
The digital component
In addition to performing the desired tasks, smart farm equipment also has the ability to capture vital data about the operation and how the land is being used. This data will be invaluable to farmers, according to Dan Burdett, global head of digital agriculture at Syngenta.
"The driverless tractor and automated farm equipment will be able to record any field event, which is important for developing insights, such as calculating return on investment," he says. "Capturing timely and accurate data to document field applications for reports and stewardship requirements will also be possible."
Because various sensors, tools and artificial intelligence will automate data collection, Burdett says the data will "enable a whole new level of decision-making capabilities. Growers will benefit from all of it," he says, adding that the adoption of digital technologies in the ag industry is inevitable and moving fast.
"It's escalating, and that's driven partly by farm economics," says Burdett. "It's very important for farmers to know their numbers. Digital tools and information technology can help farmers be better business people."
The future of autonomy
For many years, the components needed to bring autonomous vehicles to market were cost-prohibitive for ag manufacturers. But that is changing.
Uber, Google and Tesla have made big investments in technology for their self-driving cars, which has substantially lowered the cost of some components that are also used in automated farm equipment.
As more industries use these components, prices will drop further, placing autonomous technology within reach of farmers. The field of automated farm equipment is fertile, and it's growing rapidly.