Robotic Automation Research Foreshadows Farming’s Future

Industries that rely on skilled employees are facing worker shortages that promise to only worsen during the next 30 years, and farming is not immune. Fortunately, farming-equipment manufacturers are starting to integrate robotics and other autonomous innovations to automate repetitive tasks.

Imagine a farmer programming equipment to run all night—without a skilled operator—to plant, maintain and even harvest crops. This is the goal of the Kinze Autonomy Project, a joint effort by Kinze Manufacturing of Williamsburg, Iowa, and Jaybridge Robotics of Cambridge, Mass., to bring robotics to row-crop farming. The project was unveiled in July of 2011, and the company said it would start selling autonomous equipment this year.

The Kinze Autonomy Project has been underway more than two years. In a video released by the company, a farmer is shown operating a combine while sending a signal to an operator-less tractor with a grain cart hitched to it. The tractor delivers the grain cart to the signaled position and waits as the combine off-loads the harvested grain into the cart. The farmer then signals the tractor to pull the grain cart to a staging area until he is ready to take the wheel and move the cart to its next destination.

“Some simple forms of autonomy are used in rice production and orchard operations,” explained Kinze VP and Chief Marketing Officer Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch. “However, until now, no other manufacturer associated with row crop production has offered truly autonomous technology like this.”

In a blog posting from April 2012 on farmfutures.com, technology writer Willie Vogt reported on an increased interest in agricultural robotics at the European Robotics Forum. “…attendees learned about ways that robotics have changed, and how these automatons could be working in a farm field near you soon,” Vogt reported.

Originally, farm robotics research focused on making machines perform multiple tasks as a human would. Now, research is focusing on singular or limited-task machines that can be networked together to accomplish farm work.

“Essentially these are much smaller machines that can work cooperatively to carry out tasks,” Vogt said, referring to work being done at various European universities and other institutions. “This networked approach to assigning the robots to specific tasks offers some interesting possibilities. However, while the dream may be closer to reality for robotics fans, don’t park your tractors and sprayers yet. It’ll be a few years before these ‘Roombas’ of the farm field have a chance. And they still must prove themselves commercially before you’ll be writing a check for a few.”

Others see automation coming much sooner to North American farms because—well—it will have to in order to keep farm production steady, let alone increase to meet escalating export demand. Just as Baby Boomers are retiring from corporate jobs, they are also getting ready to retire from farming. The average American farmer is 57 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and for every farmer under 35, there are nearly six who are 65 or older. Farm help, too, will become scarcer as the general U.S. population grows older in the coming decades, and populations growth occurs mostly in urban centers.

In addition to Kinze, other machine producers appear poised to bring more automation to farming. John Deere has been studying farm-equipment automation since at least 2005.

“John Deere…markets a military version of its Gator that can follow a path and avoid soldiers and other obstacles while walking point or returning wounded to base,” according to a January, 2011, article by Michael Raine posted on The Western Producer. “The first of the company’s drive-by-wire, 8-series Deere tractors have come off the assembly line at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in the past few weeks. While they aren’t autonomous yet, the technology behind the concept is becoming standard in modern farm machinery.”

At a February 2011 trade show in Paris, Case IH was awarded a gold medal for the introduction of its V2V, or “vehicle to vehicle,” system. This system provides location information between different pieces of equipment, allowing them to send commands to one another. In announcing the new technology, Case IH cited an all-time high demand for farm exports and an accompanying need for farmers to be more efficient and increase throughput.