Automation’s role in ag increasing

Automated technology isn’t just science fiction anymore. For the last several years, it’s been working its way into the manufacturing sector, where robots like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter are used to complete repetitive tasks. It’s also found in Silicon Valley. Google is now testing at least 10 driverless cars on the roads of California.

Automation’s role in ag increasing

Automated technology isn’t just science fiction anymore. For the last several years, it’s been working its way into the manufacturing sector, where robots like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter are used to complete repetitive tasks. It’s also found in Silicon Valley. Google is now testing at least 10 driverless cars on the roads of California.

This kind of automation will also have a home in agriculture, says Scott Shearer, an ag engineering professor at Ohio State University. “This technology isn’t that far away from being deployed in farming,” Shearer says. “Whatever happens in the automotive industry can easily be translated to off-road and ag equipment. Controller Area Networks essentially came from the truck and bus industry.”

Some automation is already used in ag equipment, including John Deere’s Machine Sync, which allows a combine operator to control the speed and position of a tractor and grain cart once pulled alongside a combine, as well as Fendt’s GuideConnect, which allows two tractors (one unmanned) to operate as one unit. Shearer says it’s a continuing trend. “We’re going to substitute technology for iron in agriculture,” he says. “We’ve got to think about how our farming operations will evolve in the future.”

By 2018, Shearer estimates the number of Internet-connected devices in the world to jump to 18 billion, or about 2.5 devices per person. This includes computers, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, wearable technology and the Internet, which includes telematics and other components allowing data transfer in agriculture.

Key Points

• Automated technology works its way deeper into industry and agriculture.

• In fields and farming, new tech can help reduce human-induced variation.

• Future autonomous cropping systems will likely be smaller and more productive.

Power in remote-sensing

Shearer and his colleagues estimate U.S. farmers are generating about a half-kilobyte of data per corn plant per growing season, but as the use of automated technology like unmanned aerial vehicles expands, so will the amount of data generated. The Federal Aviation Administration recently granted exemptions to four companies to begin commercial operations of UAVs. “Overflights of remote-sensed imagery could generate 10 times the amount of data coming from existing field machinery. I think it could go up to 20 times,” Shearer says.

With the use of hyperspectral imagery, UAVs can help visualize linear patterns of man-induced variation.

“Most crop consultants are trying to manage naturally occurring variation within fields, soil types, what’s underneath the soils, things like that, but we have man-induced variability superimposed on top of the natural variation,” he says. “With remote-sensed imagery we can reduce some of the man-induced variation and do a much better job of managing naturally occurring variation.”

Man-induced variation

Man-induced variation comes in a number of forms — from planter skips and double planting to compaction to herbicide carryover. As equipment size increases, compaction becomes more of a factor, and there are more components for the operator to keep tabs on.

As Shearer explains, a third of the responsibility is on the operator, a third on who set up the machine and a third on the field’s shape and terrain — that means about two-thirds is fully in control of humans. “It’s all about the quality of the job being done,” he says. “Once people understand and can visualize the quality of field operations, they will make management and purchase decisions pushing toward more controls and automation of equipment.”

Let’s get automated

What might the autonomous cropping system of the future look like? Shearer and his students recently came up with a 3D model of an example, and it’s significantly different from today’s tractors.

For instance, if a tractor today had a 20,000-hour lifespan, and the average Midwest farmer uses a tractor about 500 hours a year, that tractor would last 40 years. However, by that time, the tractor may have become obsolete.

On the other hand, Shearer’s model has a machine life of six to seven cropping seasons, coinciding with technological obsolescence.

These tractors of the future are also reconfigurable for ground clearance and track width, allowing farmers to plant and spray with the same machine. They use spark ignition engines, eliminating the cost of after-treatment of diesel exhaust.

But the biggest difference from today’s cropping systems is size. Shearer’s model involves a 50- to 60-horsepower tractor with a gross vehicle weight of 8,000 pounds pulling a four-row planter. This means reduced soil compaction, easy access for servicing and easier hauling between fields.

It’s smaller, but because it’s autonomous or semi-autonomous, it can work around the clock. “We’re going to need more of them, but we’re not going to need as many as you think because it’s running 24/7 for some operations. Right now if we get a 14- or 16-hour day out of a lot of our equipment in North America, it’s a pretty good day,” Shearer says.

“Because of the reduction in soil compaction and a modest gain in productivity of about 7%, we can justify the shift to smaller, autonomous equipment.”

He said it

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“We’re going to substitute technology for iron in agriculture. We’ve got to think about how our farming operations are going to evolve in the future.”

Scott Shearer,
Ohio State University
ag engineer

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FUTURE: Scott Shearer and his students created a 3D model of what the autonomous cropping system of the future might look like. It’s smaller in size than today’s machinery, reducing compaction and making it easier to haul. The 50-to-60 horsepower tractor has a gross vehicle weight of 8,000 pounds and pulls a four-row planter.

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Precision Farming Management

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