New tech could make ag safer

The last 50 years have seen some major improvements in agricultural safety, from the inclusion of rollover protection in every tractor leaving the factory, to improvements in lighting, visibility and signage. The next step in ag safety, says Will Rogers, director of government affairs at the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, lies in precision technology.

New tech could make ag safer

The last 50 years have seen some major improvements in agricultural safety, from the inclusion of rollover protection in every tractor leaving the factory, to improvements in lighting, visibility and signage. The next step in ag safety, says Will Rogers, director of government affairs at the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, lies in precision technology.

“Something we’re going to continue to look at is taking operators out of the equipment. That’s going to fall under robotic equipment,” he says. “We believe that’s going to help reduce the risk to farmers operating the equipment.”

Quoting author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, Rogers says, “The primary ingredient of progress is optimism,” and adds, “I believe we need to look at opportunities in the future very optimistically. I think we need to embrace new technology, I think they provide the greatest hope for our communities and our country.”

Key Points

Agriculture is the most important UAV market in the U.S.

Still a lot of work must be done before UAVs are suited to ag environment.

Once requirements are met, UAVs could eliminate human exposure to hazards.

Is the future here?

It’s a question Eric Miller, sales and marketing manager at MackRobotics, gets all the time: When will we see tractors driving in the field on their own, controlled by farmers in an office?

Although not yet operated from a separate location, Miller notes, “Quite simply, the fact is tractors can already drive themselves down the field. Some of my friends have recently purchased Netflix. They sit in their tractors and watch movies all day long, simply because the tractor drives itself.”

Perhaps more important, he says, is addressing questions of safety issues — how to stop tractors from driving themselves if something goes wrong.

“These are the questions we need to ask once we get into new technology, especially with robots in the field,” Miller says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we do need to think about all the possibilities, whether they are reality or science fiction.”

Widespread adoption

The extent of precision technology’s use varies from state to state, from a low of about 30% in Oklahoma and Texas to a high of 92% in North and South Dakota, according to program director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center in Devils Lake, N.D., Paul Gunderson.

The technology on everyone’s mind is unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The Dakota Precision Ag Center is working on ruggedizing five varieties of UAV technology. “Agriculture has become the most important unmanned aerial vehicle market in the U.S.,” Gunderson says. “This whole business has just imploded in our midst.”

Although there are concerns over future potential Federal Aviation Admin-istration regulations of airspace over agricultural environments, Gunderson notes the FAA is a little late to the game. Following a 1947 U.S. circuit court ruling, agricultural producers reportedly control all airspace on their owned land up to 500 feet, and Gunderson says with current patterns of UAV use on farms and ag businesses across the U.S., “you’re going to have a very difficult time stuffing this technology back in the box.”

However, there is still a laundry list of work to be done before this technology is suited for the ag environment. This includes enabling UAVs with GPS and equipping them with both conventional and multi-spectral image capabilities like thermal imaging.

Wrap-around vision

These aircraft need to be outfitted with 360-degree vision so they can be used in agricultural environments without jeopardizing the safety of other aircraft, like crop dusters and railroad or pipeline surveillance aircraft, operating in the same airspace.

A lot of UAV technology on the shelf today isn’t rugged enough to be of any use in the ag environment. This technology needs landing gear capable of landing in a field or pasture without tipping over and damaging the propellers, extended battery life long enough for practical use, DC motors powerful and robust enough to be able to withstand wind speeds up to 30 knots, and components rugged enough to be able to use in dusty or gaseous environments.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out whether these technologies can be a stand-in for humans so humans don’t have to be in these places where they can get into trouble,” Gunderson says.

Eliminating exposure

If these upgrades are made and FAA regulations permit them, Gunderson says UAVs have the potential to completely eliminate exposure to hazards and the elements, since many drones are controlled through the use of an iPad. “Someday our tractor cabs that are currently filled with monitors will be figments of past history, because we’ll control all technology from a computer surface of some type.”

From the late 1940s to late 1950s, Gunderson notes “there were hundreds and hundreds of incidents” of corn picker entanglements, what he describes as a trail of tears. However, when the use of combines surpassed the use of corn pickers, these incidents declined. “It’s an example of what happens when exposure is eliminated as a result of the advent of technology on the American farm.

“I believe we have arrived at a point where we can change the trajectory of that trail and move forward in a way that removes tears forever on the setting you and I love, which is a setting in which food, fiber and fuel are produced.”

 

Technology’s potential

One example of technology that can eliminate exposure to hazards was unveiled earlier this year from MackRobotics, based in Leola, S.D. The new technology, the BinBot, is designed to aid the grain sweep and work inside the bin while the sweep is powered, which workers are not allowed to do under current OSHA regulations. The unit is operated via remote control from outside the grain bin.

It’s compact enough to fit into bins with a minimum of a 2-foot-diameter circle, weighs 715 pounds, and is what Eric Miller, sales and marketing manager at MackRobotics, says is “essentially a small robotic skid-steer.”

“This machine gives us the ability to begin the cleanup process, as well as push, pull and drag the sweep in any way. Most importantly, we’re able to use the machine to neutralize any threats inside the bin such as walled grain or bridged grain,” Miller says. “With the machine we’re able to have a worker perform the same tasks and functions, but doing so from a safe location.”

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LAUNDRY LIST: There is still a laundry list of work to be done before UAVs are suited for the ag environment. However, if FAA regulations permit and certain upgrades are made to ruggedize UAVs, Paul Gunderson, program director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center, says they have the potential to eliminate exposure to hazards in agriculture.

This article published in the August, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Precision Farming Technology (Equipment)

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