A few weeks ago I took in a lunchtime presentation in Winnipeg on the topic of international trade. The event attracted a pretty large crowd. I recognized some people from the ag machinery sector, but there were many others sitting in from a broad range of sectors. That was no surprise; trade is pretty important to this country.
One of the people to sit next to me was also from the ag sector, but on the grains side. After introducing ourselves, he asked me what I thought the next big thing in farm machinery was going to be. I gave him my answer almost immediately. “Autonomy”, I said.
Autonomous machine projects starting showing up in earnest at Agritechnica, the giant German farm machinery expo, more than half a decade ago. At first, it seemed a little pie in the sky to me. Although robotic technology wasn’t beyond the realm of imagination, thinking of swarms of robots or a single high-horsepower machine working farm fields was just so different from the norm. Maybe it was just the shocking difference that made me a little reluctant to image the industry going that way. And like most farmers, being in the tractor or combine seat working fields is actually our passion. Thinking of robots taking that away from us is kind of like a car guy who loves the rumble of a big V8 engine being happy with an electric car.
But as autonomous prototypes continue to appear, the advantage of the technology is becoming pretty clear. In fact, there are already a lot of robots working in ag, especially in dairy barns.
Attending a number of media event put on by the major brands over the years has allowed me to hear about the autonomous R&D projects all of them have been working on for a couple of decades. On a trip down to Moline, Illinois, last week to attend John Deere’s 2018 new-product launch I had a couple of hours to walk through the John Deere Pavilion, which was just across the street from my hotel.
Inside was the autonomous Deere tractor that appears several years ago. I had seen photos of it (and published them a few times). Like the autonomous Magnum Case IH displayed at the U.S. Farm Progress show in Iowa last year, the robotic Deere was designed without an operator’s station. It is about the size of one of the brand’s current 4 Series tractors.
Deere began experimenting with it as far back as 1997. From the beginning, getting it to operate safely by avoiding hazards was one of the key hurdles necessary to make it a viable product. And the machine needed to know when to stop for fuel or refill any product tank on a sprayer or even stop if a repair was needed. At the same time it had to provide a constant stream of communication to a farm office.
If any of these features sound like something you may already have on a conventional tractor in your own fleet, you’re right. Many of the systems developed in this project have been gradually included on Deere’s existing equipment line. And the same goes for technology developed at the other brands. They’re using some aspects of it in current models as well.
Case IH executive said they expect their autonomous Magnum could hit the market within three years. With the number of autonomous machines already starting to appear and the wide range of R&D projects developing the technology further, we could see a major shift in the look of a typical farm equipment fleet very soon.
And this year is another Agritechnica year, which means the latest developments in autonomy will be on display in November. Will we see something farmers can take home now?
And by the way, you can join us at that show. Grainews is hosting a tour group that will head across the Atlantic to see the show and some other great sites in Germany. But you have to sign up soon. June 15 is the deadline to get in with our group.