Autonomy is on the horizon for the ag equipment industry. Between John Deere’s 2019 driverless tractor concept and Raven Industries accepting preorders for its Autonomous AutoCart, the reality of farmers purchasing and utilizing autonomous equipment is only growing. As a result, it is crucial that dealerships prepare for the reality of selling and servicing a new demographic of self-operating equipment.

Bill Lehmkuhl, president of Precision Agri Services, an independent precision dealership based in Minster, Ohio, says they’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve on autonomy as a business. 

He cautions dealers to not dismiss all cutting-edge technology as a fad. “Think back to the first time you heard about auto-steer,” he says. “There was a lack of platforms when it came out. We were designing and fitting our own wheel angle sensors, steering valves, you name it. A lot of farmers said it’s just a fad, that’s it too expensive, that they’d never use it. And how many of our customers have auto-steer today?”

Customer Interest 

Lehmkuhl notes several critical hurdles his customers are currently facing that he believes autonomy will address in the future. “It’s hard to find good seasonal help, and we have too many jobs that need to be done all at once,” he says. “But autonomy’s going to greatly reduce the amount of help needed. We have several operators who have already said they’re going to purchase the Raven AutoCart due to their inability to find help. 

“We can also look at the planting window being too small. Autonomous equipment never gets tired or calls in sick, and in the future, it may be able to run 24 hours a day.”

Pictured: (left) Bill Lehmkuhl, president of Precision Agri Services and (right) Ben Flansburg, Integrated Solutions manager at LandPro Equipment.

When asked directly, the majority of Precision Agri Service’s customers were most interested in autonomy on their grain cart operations. “I think that comes from our customers looking at ways to reallocate their labor to some other job on the farm that provides a better return on investment, such as seeding cover crops.”

Planting and seeding received the second most interest from Lehmkuhl’s customers, followed by spraying and tillage. “If they can do tillage or apply dry fertilizer while the combine’s still in the field and monitor that function, that would be ideal,” he says. “The last one was harvesting, which was pretty much a hard ‘no’ from all our customers. And I tend to agree, that might be far-fetched. But it may happen someday.”

Farmers’ Reasons for Considering Autonomous Equipment

  • Hard to find good, seasonal help
  • Too many jobs need to be done at once
  • Planting window is too small
  • Need to get more done in a day
  • Can’t find the right conditions for fields operations
  • Compacting the soil with large equipment

Investing in Autonomy

Lehmkuhl addresses that dealers may be looking at future investments as the available technology advances beyond what’s already familiar. “Most dealerships are already doing GPS, auto-steer and guidance systems,” he says. “But ask yourself, are you prepared for cameras, radar, lasers, LiDAR and other kinds of artificial intelligence? Are you prepared to make additional investments in equipment and employees?”

Dealers may need to consider a variety of investments when beginning to deal with autonomous equipment. Lehmkuhl mentions the potential to need a new service truck with a crane or new technicians with special training.

Servicing downed autonomous equipment also presents new challenges, like the ease of getting a customers’ autonomous tractor running after a breakdown in a field.

“If it’s a tractor with autonomous tech on it, it might be as simple as detaching and moving that tech to the customer’s other tractor,” he says. “Hopefully that customer can find someone to fill the void until you get his autonomous unit up and running. Or if it’s a standalone platform, depending on the cost, there may not be another unit available for the customer and he’ll be stuck.”

He adds that multiple smaller autonomous equipment units, configured into “swarms,” may be easier to repair if dealers are able to simply carry entire spare units that can be swapped out when there’s a malfunction. 

Define Your Objectives

Ben Flansburg, Integrated Solutions manager at LandPro Equipment, a 20-store John Deere dealership with locations in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, recalls how he and his team outlined their objectives when considering how to add autonomous equipment to their business.

“We sat down at the beginning and said, ‘What are our objectives? Why do we want to look at autonomy and what do we want to do?’” he says.

“Pretty unanimously, the whole team said we need to start by gaining confidence in the system ourselves. We need to know we can demo it to our customers and prove to them it’s really going to work. We need to be able to show our customers the value autonomous equipment adds and what it’s going to bring to their operation.”

Flansburg and his team chose gaining customer confidence as their second objective, accounting for a new level of liability. “The biggest problem we hear from our customers now is: who’s liable?” he says. “What happens if something goes wrong? Back in 2007 when we started with auto-steer, we had to gain customer confidence, but when things went wrong, we could still grab the steering wheel and take over. We have a whole new level of confidence we need to gain.”

Their third objective is providing feedback to manufacturers on future enhancements. “We want to be able to give feedback to vendors on what worked and what didn’t,” he says. “That way when there’s a fully marketable solution out there in autonomy, we can bring a complete solution to market for our customers.”

Back to the Data

For Flansburg, collecting and analyzing data will be a key part of the success of autonomous farm equipment. 

“In my opinion, autonomy will be driven by applying the data we’ve been collecting and analyzing for years,” he says. “One example is having two autonomous tractors performing different operations in the field. One is going to steer the other, providing real-time data and information. We’re going to be sharing things like field boundaries, guidance lines, tillage practices and soil types.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Identify and work with your potential “early adopter” customers
  • Prepare to invest in new equipment and staff
  • Data application will drive adoption of autonomy 
  • Establish a 3–5-year plan for adding autonomy to your dealership

He adds that the increasing intelligence of sensors will mean autonomous equipment won’t only be tilling or planting in the future but will also perform smart applications, such as detecting weeds and insects in real-time. He also clarifies that dealers need to be sure they’re recording things like fertility levels, soil types and seed varieties, which will serve as a foundation for future smart application technology. “Those sensors are really going to drive autonomy,” says Flansburg. “They’re going to give us valuable information back, but they’re going to require valuable information to start.”

Defining First Steps

Flansburg recommends dealers begin their journey into autonomous equipment by developing a 3-5-year plan on working with autonomy’s early adopters. “We’ll have 10-15% of our customers who are considered early adopters,” he says. “Those are the ones we really need to focus on, because autonomy will take work to implement successfully on an operation. 

“We also need to ask: who do we target? What does it look like? In our Integrated Solutions department, we took a step back, looked at our target audience and asked ourselves: who stands to gain from this technology?” 

He gives the example of fruit orchard and vegetable farmers in his area of responsibility, who could benefit from autonomy to help with labor shortages. He recommends dealers consider factors such as the customers’ age, number of acres farmed and different crop types.

Flansburg also says dealers need to examine their dealership — and specifically the service department — to determine what kind of autonomous equipment they’re prepared to sell and service. “Do you want to get into a fully autonomous rover system? Or would you rather retrofit existing equipment?” he says. “Look at your organization, and whichever you decide will help you determine which autonomous partners you want. Retrofitting will have a smaller learning curve for technicians compared to working with a whole new machine.” 

Dealers should aim to educate not just their service departments, but also their parts and sales teams on how to discuss and pitch new, autonomous technologies. 

“At LandPro, what we like to do when we research and bring in technology, like autonomy, is let it live with our precision staff for 2 years,” he says. “That way we’re able to gain experience and learn it as a precision team first. We can showcase it to our customers and then educate our sales and service staff. That way we know that everybody has a complete understanding of that technology when we really start pushing it into the market.”    

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