Ag scholars envision downsizing farm equipment to maximize safety and technology of autonomous systems.

Jack Zemlicka, Technology Editor

As farm equipment manufacturers push the envelope to incorporate autonomous systems into machinery — one sensor at a time — there seems to be as many questions as answers about how the technology will impact the ag industry.

While companies like Kinze Manufacturing, John Deere and Case IH are each developing their own versions of unmanned farm machinery, the introduction of the technology to the marketplace could substantially change the way equipment dealers sell iron.

“The technology for robotic agriculture is there and robotics are already widely used in industrial settings and in mining,” notes Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue Univ. “But in agriculture, we don’t see a lot of commercial use of that technology yet and I think it will require a rethinking of how we farm and how we mechanize agriculture in order to make use of it.”

During a recent interview with Precision Farming Dealer, Lowenberg-DeBoer suggested that once autonomous technology is fully ready for public consumption in the ag industry, its value will be tied to safety and efficiency.

Unlike other industries where robotics are often utilized in closed spaces like factories or mines, farmland is far less secure, especially with massive machinery rolling through the field.

The potential solution, Lowenberg-DeBoer says, is smaller equipment — imagine a fleet of R2-D2s — to operate faster in the field and reduce risk for owners.

“Instead of making autonomous versions of the current equipment — large 150-200 horsepower tractors — we have smaller units that accomplish the same operation,” he says, “but which pose much less of a liability problem.”

Currently, manufacturers are engineering autonomous systems to work with standard-sized tractors, combines and grain carts.

But if the technology evolves to the point of manufacturers producing smaller machinery equipped with autonomous systems, the change could radically alter how equipment dealers operate.

“That would change the sales equation,” Lowenberg-DeBoer says. “Instead of selling that grower one combine every two or three years, maybe you’re selling that grower a dozen of these small units every year.”

Farmers may be more inclined to experiment with autonomous technology, he says, testing a handful of machines on an annual basis, instead of trading in equipment every few years.

It also could change where those sales occur, creating opportunities in areas where the equipment market hasn’t been as stellar.

“We may get equipment sales out again in eastern Ohio or Pennsylvania,” Lowenberg-DeBoer says, “where farm equipment hasn’t been a big business for the last few years.”

But others question the widespread value of robotic technology in agriculture.

David Mulla, director of the Univ. of Minnesota’s Precision Agriculture Center, says that while attractive, autonomous systems may not prove to be as productive as human operators, especially on large farms.

“I think the techniques could be used on smaller scales,” he says. “I’m a little bit concerned when it gets to larger fields that you wouldn’t have the capacity to harvest quickly, large areas and efficiently carry away the grain.”

Still, both Mulla and Lowenberg-DeBoer say the future of robotics will depend on how manufacturers decide to develop the technology.

But whatever the approach, equipment dealers will likely need to adapt.

“This technology is going to have major implications on how farming is done and where it’s done,” Lowenberg-DeBoer says. “So we need to think very carefully about how that will effect the whole business of farm equipment.”