Autonomous farm equipment is not just tomorrow’s development, it’s today’s reality.
During the 2023 Precision Farming Dealer Summit, Sam Christianson, director of precision farming and machine control for Titan Machinery, Dave Krog, co-founder of Salin 247 and Jeff Wessels with Frenchman Valley co-op weighed in on the realities of autonomy and how its progression affects both farmers and dealers.
A shortage of skilled labor, according to Christianson, means that farmers are fighting to stay productive.
“Our farmers have turned to old fashioned solutions like horsepower and size, but as the equipment gets bigger, it’s harder to run,” he says. “So we’ve ended up integrating a lot of great technology along the way, which automates nearly every step of the production cycle.”
Born from the immediate concerns of producers, autonomy is here to stay and will continue to support the evolving needs of farmers. Currently, components of autonomous technology are already present in tools like path planning and Raven OMNiDRIVE. Accomplished through neural networks or perception systems, computer generated real-time “maps” are used for obstacle avoidance in pre-set routes. Because of this, Christianson says, it can feel like modern machines don’t need an operator at all.
“Without the sensors to gather information and the controllers to calculate, command and verify that things are working correctly, farming today would be totally different,” he says. “We think these systems only apply to autonomous farming, but they are already on our farms today.”
Christianson notes that one of Titan Machinery’s partners, Raven, uses autonomous application control, rate control, boom control, guidance and steering systems, field computers and other information management systems to help farmers operate more efficiently.
Modern farming, especially in large scale operations, relies on software to gather and analyze information that will ensure a more profitable and productive business. Integrating autonomous equipment into a farm, however, can require a more significant change in operation than something like path planning software. Christianson says this might make it better suited to smaller farms, at least at first.
Dave Krog, founder of Salin 247, is focused on developing the kind of small-scale and lightweight autonomous equipment that Christianson imagines. With a focus on sustainability in farming, Salin 247’s goal is to use electric or hybrid equipment to address the carbon footprint of corn and soybean production, lower production costs and reduce labor needs amid a skilled labor scarcity.
Krog believes that autonomous technology, both large- and small-scale, will develop quickly, and with that comes some unknowns.
“Many people struggle to see past today’s technology and take themselves out of the job the way that it’s always been done,” Christianson says. “There are a lot of questions about autonomy, but I think the most important one is are we doing what the customer wants or what the customer needs?”
Scoping Current Autonomous Tech
On the market today, autonomy is in constant stages of development and improvement.
Salin 247 has developed a small, prototype autonomous planter, which Krog deems an autonomous toolbar on top of which a planter unit can be attached. The 4-row, 30-inch row planter was tested on 4 farms in Iowa, 2 in Tennessee and 1 in Kansas, 6 of those 7 being no-till operations. Though Krog was happy with the results overall, he does admit there were some technical difficulties.
“You might have noticed we had a shop vac strapped to the back of our planter. We had to do a plan B on the vacuum system,” he says.
Also noting compaction issues, Krog explains that because the system is so lightweight, they had trouble keeping it level on the ground. While they started out initially fully electric, they were forced to switch to a hybrid model when swapping batteries out mid-plant became necessary and therefore inefficient. Their solution was to mount a generator on the toolbar to keep the battery charged.
Though these may seem like setbacks, the modifications that result from testing are valuable measures of progress.
Jeff Wessels, precision ag manager for Frenchman Valley co-op, was one of the first retailers to work with DOT autonomous technology, since acquired by Raven and now known as OMNiDRIVE.
“It was an attraction. There would be farmers lining up out in the countryside just to watch this thing go through the field,” Wessels says.
At 13 miles per hour, it wasn’t easy to miss, and he explains that they weren’t easy to transport either. Without the horsepower necessary for the grain bins that Frenchman uses or the ability to change the wheel width, there was room for advancement in DOT technology too.
However, Wessels works more with autonomy in the air instead of equipment on the ground.
One of the products he highly recommends is a spraying unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). He explains that it’s not feasible for ground rigs to spot spray on hundreds or thousands of acres, but it is for a UAV. The only downsides that Wessels notes are that it weighs more than 55 pounds and, in order to fly it, the operator must have an agricultural pilot’s license. This, according to Wessels, is a major complication, and he’s hoping that the FAA will redefine the guidelines for autonomous aerial equipment.
Though autonomous technology and the regulations surrounding that technology may be stumbling forward or not fully practical for all operations, it continues to advance rapidly. As more equipment is developed, previously unconsidered opportunities are being identified and addressed by autonomous technology.
With the goal of early spot spraying weed identification and then returning later to full spray, Wessels says that working with Taranis UAVs is a cost effective and efficient solution.
“We have an intensive crop scout, and I asked him, how do you scout a field? I had him show me. He covers 7% of the field when he goes out and walks a field. This thing covers 100%, and it will identify insects, weeds, diseases and nutrient deficiencies,” he says.
The pictures it takes provide the user with a map of the field, specific places where weeds have been identified and a breakdown of that information so that farmers can make informed decisions on weed control.
“We have farmers that are using this. They know what the weeds are. They have their own sprayer. They’re farming 30,000 acres. They don’t have staff to go look at the fields. So they use this, and they’re like, I knew the field had an issue, but it’s got way higher weed pressure than I thought,” Wessels says.
Without autonomous technology, spot spraying large fields would be unmanageable for many operations. With products like Taranis, not only is this possible, it’s less expensive, less time consuming and provides the farmer with valuable and accurate field data.
Wessels can see the vision of autonomous technology and is working with companies like Farm Flight to solve problems that previously had no feasible solution. He envisions Farm Flight UAVs using aerial maps to identify sections of fields that are lacking in nutrients. This will help farmers save money by applying variable fertilizer rates based on field conditions instead of a base rate to all fields.
Dealerships and Autonomy
Automating a farm means incorporating many interconnected systems and equipment that needs external support from dealers and suppliers.
“These systems allow a farmer to essentially connect their whole workflow,” Christianson says. “It’s creating data streaming all the time. We need to make sure as the dealer that we’re there to monitor that data. For the customer, the data’s creating knowledge, which is the power to act, make decisions. For the dealer, we need to provide the connected support that they’re expecting. Along with that knowledge, we need to make sure that we’re working in partnership with our suppliers.”
One of the big questions dealers and suppliers face is ownership and whether autonomy will be a product or a service. Both Christianson and Krog lean toward a service model. Though they don’t have any definitive answers, Christianson says that larger manufacturers have announced their intention to bill by the acre, something that creates a sustainable revenue stream to pay for the technology.
Krog is also starting with a service model in order to provide the most support to Salin 247’s customers in a new technological environment. As far as data collection and analysis, Salin 247 is not an agronomy company, so Krog is considering working with outside businesses who are more suited to interpreting the data in a way that will most benefit farmers.
Another important question is liability in a service model. Christianson says that autonomous Titan Machinery equipment includes a liability waiver.
“We make sure that any grower we work with has told their insurance provider that they were going to have autonomous vehicles on their farm. We wanted to make sure they’re covered,” Christianson says.
As with any new technology, the market details are not definitive, and Krog emphasizes that the intricacies of service models and liability are things that have yet to be fully addressed.
When speaking with customers about OMNiDRIVE, Christianson gets questions that highlight the limitations of current autonomous technology.
“Does it dump itself? No. How many combines can it handle? One. And can you do it with a 4-wheel drive? Which today we can’t. So those are limitations, but I think a big part of that is mental. We have to be open-minded and remember that some of this doesn’t fit with how we traditionally have done the job,” he says.
The more important question, according to Christianson, is whether the autonomous equipment is capable of being integrated onto individual farms. Does it fit with the needs of the farmer without stepping on the farmer’s toes?
“Some people think the combine will be the last thing the farmer gives up,” Christianson says. “Maybe they enjoy seeing what the crop is like, or maybe they just can’t imagine the job getting done a different way, or without them in the cab. The limitations we have seen are mainly mental, but some are technological. The point is that the technological barriers are falling faster than the mental ones. So you need to help coach your customer through that.”
When it comes to adopting and integrating autonomous technology, Christianson notes that people are averse to change, but businesses must keep an open mind when partnering with vendors and customers. While other businesses may be making headlines, it’s important to support customers and suppliers in the best way possible to come out ahead.
The target audience for this new and developing autonomous technology, according to Christianson, is innovators and early adopters.
“The older generation would love to come up and see the combine, maybe ride in it,” he says. “Typically, at the end of the demo, though, they would say it’s past my time, and then they’d elbow their son or their nephew and say, he has to learn it. This is going to be for him.”