by Courtney Llewellyn

If you haven’t had labor issues in the past 24 months, you will, but a lot of autonomous equipment is coming down the pike for smaller farms, not just those with thousands of acres. That’s according to Mark Ledebuhr, principal of Application Insight LLC, an organization focused on the design and evaluation of spray application systems and moving to improve the hardware of pesticide applications. He spoke on “The Secondary Impacts of Implementing New Technology on the Farm” at the most recent Great Lakes Expo.

Why autonomy, though? What are the benefits? Ledebuhr outlined them.

  • Labor savings – Using automated technology shifts your labor need to a smaller quantity but higher skill level, but this ultimately may take a load off farm owners/managers. It helps to eliminate repetitive, boring or dangerous tasks; there is increased precision; and there is reduced scouting with collateral data acquisition. Harvest assist technologies can make precious labor three to five times more productive, reduce occupational injuries/workers’ compensation costs and may also provide site-specific harvest data tracking. “Some things we will always need humans for, but moving pots?” Ledebuhr joked.
  • Operational savings – Robots can work 24 hours a day and work in novel ways. As a parallel, Ledebuhr noted that tire and driveline wear in mining operations have been proven to be reduced substantially due to superior machine operation algorithms (and this should be similar in agriculture). Predictive maintenance and fault detection of new technology should allow for fewer downtime emergencies. “Robots never pop the clutch, and that makes equipment last longer,” he added. “It’s not a sexy reason to buy drones but it’s a good one.”
  • Increased precision – There are several benefits to factor in here. First is the in-field precision: autonomous vehicles never miss rows, never drive too fast or too slow and can hold centimeter guidance with vision, real-time kinematic positioning (the application of surveying to correct for common errors in current satellite navigation systems) and lidar-augmented navigation (lidar being light detection and ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges or variable distances to Earth). Automation is also well-suited for slow processes like mechanical weeding as well as large acreage high speed processes, both of which can be problematic for human operators.

There’s also increased weather precision. “Autonomous equipment doesn’t get impatient,” Ledebuhr said. “If environmental conditions for spray applications fall out of parameter, the autonomous vehicle can be programmed to stop and wait or return home.” An autonomous vehicle may be more likely to maintain details like boom height and speed too.

Chemical and weed control precision is increased as well. This means precise, per-weed treatments, including those of laser, mechanical and electrical means, become possible. This can radically reduce chemical use rates and their corresponding environmental loads.

  • Risk reduction – Ledebuhr noted robots can monitor conditions and stop if the wind or other environmental conditions fall out of parameter. They can better monitor and adjust boom height and other operational parameters that humans may otherwise ignore – and their “decisions” can be logged for full traceability.

“Pesticide application, and machinery operation in general, is inherently dangerous to the applicator,” Ledebuhr said. “Autonomy reduces human risk exposures.” And there’s a range of what autonomous, from simple driver assistance to having no human present. Agriculture is currently at semi- or supervised autonomy, such as UAV pesticide applications and harvest assistance. “We’re offloading non-human tasks,” he added.

Ledebuhr thinks refits are the next step for growers. This means refitting formally manned machines for equipment that already works for each farmer’s operation.

But, like everything in life, there’s another side to this technology coin. There are unique needs for autonomy vs. conventional. For example, a grower never needs just one piece of equipment – it’s an ecosystem. You need the internet of things (IoT) – and there are a lot of questions you need to ask before investing. Fortunately, Ledebuhr outlined this part of the process as well.

“Robots are usually IoT devices. They will always try to connect to something,” he said. “Without a great, reliable connection, can they be successful?” With much of rural America still lacking quality high-speed internet, this is a major concern. These devices also utilize large data streams, so users need to ask who manages and stores that data, can they be collected to support other systems for higher productivity and how are they being controlled, stored and processed? (It’s often a third-party cloud AI data processor.)

Without operators, diagnosis of issues is also a concern. Consider how equipment will keep their “eyes” and sensors clean. Nozzle or spray system faults can be difficult for an operator to detect, much less a machine. “Would it know if one-third of the nozzles were clogged? How does the autonomous vehicle detect and report fault conditions?” Ledebuhr asked. “Consider the cost of a failed spray compared to the autonomous labor savings.”

Additionally, machines running 24/7 results in a four times faster maintenance interval. And if your automated fleet is electric, how will it be charged? Will it require installations in every field?

Questions to Ask

Investing in new technology is no small affair. Ledebuhr outlined some value indicators growers need to look at. One strong sign of value is the existence of service contracts or long-term, full service operating lease agreements being offered or required by the autonomy provider. “If the tech company is sophisticated enough and well-funded enough to offer these, there is likely a positive correlation to residual value,” he said. “The machines and software will get proper care. The risk is higher if the equipment is a stand-alone sale.”

If the company is foreign – and many are – do they have a strong U.S. presence with full support, or just a representative? Ledebuhr noted the U.S. doesn’t always lead in technology; innovation is global.

A big question to think about is the company’s agricultural reputation. “Does the tech company understand the demands and reliability requirements of your operation?” Ledebuhr asked. “They may make farm equipment but have never stepped foot on a farm.”

As IoT becomes a more critical part of every part of our lives, growers will also need to consider their cybersecurity – a risk they likely don’t have with their John Deere equipment. (Note: Hard wired systems tend to be more secure than the cloud.)

“This is a brave new world for a lot of folks,” Ledebuhr concluded. “There are more questions than answers as the sector develops.”