As autonomous equipment becomes more common, a limiting factor could be the availability to access broadband internet connectivity in rural areas.
“Broadband access is necessary to make a lot of this work,” said Dr. Scott Shearer, Chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. “In the future, farmers will likely lease autonomous farm equipment rather than own it.”
Swarm Farm is just one example of autonomous agricultural equipment. Currently being used in Australia, SwarmBots are small, lightweight, nimble, autonomous robotic “platforms” that conduct farming practices in groups, or “swarms,” of machines to tackle larger acreages. Currently the technology is used for crop protection application and mowing. More applications are in the works. These SwarmBots are leased by the farmers from the parent company.
Several of the major farm equipment manufacturers are also conducting research and development, and patenting similar technologies. John Deere is developing an autonomous sprayer with electric motors. In 2017, John Deere purchased Blue River Technology. Blue River has developed “See and Spray” technology by using computer vision and artificial intelligence which allows the smart machines to detect, identify, and make management decisions about every plant in the field. This technology could be another tool in the toolbox for farmers to manage herbicide resistant weeds.
As weather patterns continue to change across much of the midwest, farming practices will need to adapt, and the adoption of new technologies will be critical. According to Aaron Wilson, Atmospheric Scientist at The Ohio State University, over the past 20 years Ohio has had an average of 5 fewer days fit for planting, and 5 fewer days fit for harvest.
“With narrower windows of opportunity in the spring and fall, and frequently less than desirable field conditions when the weather does allow opportunities, figuring out how to run under marginal conditions will be crucial,” Shearer said. “Smaller and lighter equipment will become necessary in some situations.”
Farmers may need to change their picture of what a tractor or piece of farm equipment looks like.
“As we move into the future, it may be more of a metal framework with electric motors to hang technology from,” Shearer said. “Smaller size equipment allows more options. The effective working width of a machine could go back to 10 feet.”
This concern about weather patterns also relates to soil health and water quality issues.
Compaction from large heavy farm equipment and monocrop rotations and cropping systems has had an impact on soil health and as a result water quality.
“The importance of managing soil health has become very apparent. If you are going to manage something, you first need to be able to measure it. Equipment size has played a role due to soil compaction issues. With A.I., and the real-time ability to measure soil health and other factors, the information will change the equipment industry,” Shearer said.
Moving forward with agricultural technology, “Understanding is important. As agriculture evolves, farmers need to be aware of and understand the technology to manage and make decisions with the best information available. Farmers need to embrace the opportunities that fit their operations. They don’t need to buy into all the technology, but they do need to know what can help on their farm, and use it.”
By: Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader