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Opinion: Autonomous choices grow for farm machinery

John Deere’s recent announcement that it will be selling autonomous 8R tractors for tillage this year elicited a not-surprising reaction from farmers.
It was a mixed response, as is often the case for new technology, especially technology that might significantly change something they’ve been doing and, in many cases, liked doing, for generations.

This isn’t the first autonomous tractor announcement. Many companies have talked about it and for years have had working models that run without direct human intervention in fields around the world.

Many of us like spending time in a tractor. It’s nice to have private time. There’s a satisfaction that comes from moving the things that tractor implements move, tilling soil, planting crops, caring for crops or harvesting crops. Heck, loader work can be fun on most days. Feeling an engine roar as you push a throttle is a powerful experience.

Watching from an office as lines move up and down a digital field isn’t nearly as exciting.

It is going to come, however, and John Deere’s plan to automate existing equipment is the next step.

Autonomy in agriculture equipment isn’t new. We’ve been doing for years what cars and trucks on the road are just now, very slowly, starting to adopt, with GPS guidance and the popularity of autosteer.

It makes sense that agriculture will move to use fully autonomous equipment sooner than the general public.

There are a couple of factors driving the trend.

The first is that while many of us enjoy a day running a tractor, and have been doing so since our early teens, there aren’t all that many of us. There are lots of jobs for people in rural areas and few move from the city to the country to drive equipment.

Running equipment is also seasonal and that can limit the pool of workers for farms.

John Deere has been smart in its autonomy strategy. It acquired Bear Flag Robotics last August. Bear Flag’s game is to apply autonomy to existing machinery, like a John Deere 8R and the many other green tractors that populate the countryside.

Other companies like Horsch, Case IH and Canadian-invented OMNI Power have been working with autonomous power units with no cabs. That approach saves the cost and resources of putting the creature comforts onto the platform – the cab itself, and the heat, controls and entertainment for a human spending long hours inside.

I also expect there’s a lot of margin in providing the cab and its comforts that some companies don’t want to forgo.

The other reason John Deere is automating already available equipment is that the cab is still there for the people who want to use it. Maybe one day you have a retired neighbour excited to run a tractor, but the next day he has a commitment. You can run the tractor with the human and without the human.

However, you will still have to pay the human one day and not the next day, and I expect that when the technology is working well, saving that day’s pay – and over a harvest season a couple of month’s pay it will start to make sense.

There are challenges with the technology. There will be different tolerances in the countryside to having operations sit while someone tries to figure out a sensor or software issue that no one can see and get a wrench on.

As I’ve seen with robotic milking, some people have patience for technology and others do not. Both types of managers can run highly successful operations, as will farmers who do and don’t use autonomous field equipment.

At the recent Ontario Agricultural Conference, Adam Pfeffer made the point that he worries about what happens in his small operation when someone who knows all the technology isn’t available to run the high-tech planter he’s put together.

The Twitter conversation after the John Deere announcement was split between farmers who don’t see the added value in full autonomy and those who see it as a fit on their farm.

Adoption will move in steps. We have autosteer. Next, I expect we’ll have tractors modified to run autonomously that will work in tandem with equipment running with an operator.

Think of running a planter while an autonomous tractor tills another field nearby, or a combine run by a human, with a grain buggy and tractor that runs autonomously. Those are comfortable next steps and we’ll likely see them running in commercial farm fields soon.