Faced with labor shortages, farm consolidation and tighter planting and harvest windows, producers are turning to new technologies, such as autonomous equipment, to improve efficiency in the field.
According to Chad Goldsmith, AgDirect territory manager in Oregon and Washington, interest and adoption of robotic machinery is growing, especially among larger operators looking for ways to cut costs.
“Larger operations have a stronger capital position to invest in autonomous equipment and are more likely to see a return right off the bat,” he says. “With any innovation, you need a mix of visionaries and early adopters who are willing to make the initial investment and maybe even sacrifice some profit to help shepherd it across the industry.”
Adaptability a key consideration
While major equipment manufacturers have played a more visible role in making autonomous machinery commercially available, Goldsmith says lesser known third-party developers are bringing a healthy dose of disruption to the self-driving equipment space.
“The adaptability of aftermarket solutions across multiple machines and platforms is a huge benefit to producers,” he says. “Whether you are looking at guidance, precision ag or an autonomous tractor, compatibility with different brands of equipment is an important consideration.”
“This inclusivity makes it easier for producers to justify the adoption of autonomous solutions,” he adds. “It also allows third parties to reach a wider audience and, in some cases, improve affordability.”
Automating existing equipment
Small start-ups, like Smart Ag, are among the third-party innovators developing the autonomous farming platforms of the future. Based in Ames, Iowa, the company is set to launch AutoCart, a software application that fully automates a grain cart tractor, in 2020.
“Our vision at Smart Ag was to create a technology platform that could address the major challenges for autonomy in farming, which primarily comes down to navigation, perception, machine vision and connectivity,” says Colin Hurd, Smart Ag Founder and CEO.
“Once we had a robust and flexible platform that could tackle these requirements, we turned our focus to developing a product that could solve a problem or a specific operation in the field,” he says. “As we were talking with different farmers and trying to understand their biggest labor challenges, a resounding response was having the ability to automate the grain cart during harvest.”
The result, AutoCart, was designed to give an operator full control of the grain cart from the combine cab. With the push of a button, the operator can call the grain cart to the combine to be filled and sent back to the edge of the field to be unloaded.
Future autonomous applications
Although autonomous equipment has had a large focus in the Midwest, Goldsmith says niche markets will soon follow suite.
“Agriculture is very diverse in the Northwest, and with over 80 different crops being grown, labor costs are much greater,” he says. “While there are some automated processing systems already in place, it is becoming a lot harder to source good workers in labor intensive operations like orchards. Implementing automation into these cropping systems makes a lot of sense, but it will take longer for it to reach the minority markets.”
Hurd agrees and says he has already started to see opportunities to modify autonomous applications for other specialty crops. For example, adapting AutoCart for cucumber or sugar beet harvest operations.
“Having a tractor that is autonomous is one thing, but having the software capabilities to run that equipment in specific operations presents a different set of challenges,” he says. If you are engineering an autonomous tractor, you are initially going to build applications for the most popular uses of that machine. Then you can start to mimic it in other operations with small modifications.”
Currently, there are no financing options explicitly available for autonomous equipment, but both Hurd and Goldsmith are confident such programs will surface as robotic machinery becomes more mainstream in the market.
Stay up-to-date on the latest in farm equipment financing by locating your nearest AgDirect territory manager or contacting the AgDirect financing team at 888-525-9805.