Autonomous Machines on The Rise: Is this the Future of Farming?

Autonomous Machines on The Rise: Is this the Future of Farming?
  1. Autonomous Machines on The Rise: Is this the Future of Farming?
    200 years ago, the closest things we had to autonomous farm machines were the animals we used to pull our ploughs. 100 years ago, we started using actual machines. Now, in the 21st century, we are building a world in which the machines are able to operate themselves. If the idea of autonomous robots getting The post Autonomous Machines on The Rise: Is this the Future of Farming? appeared first on…

200 years ago, the closest things we had to autonomous farm machines were the animals we used to pull our ploughs. 100 years ago, we started using actual machines. Now, in the 21st century, we are building a world in which the machines are able to operate themselves.

If the idea of autonomous robots getting about in our fields makes you think of this:

Image credit: twm1340 via

You can relax. We’ve not quite reached the singularity yet. At least not that they’ve told us. Today’s “autonomous” machines still require human input. However, we are moving steadily closer to a future in which machines completely take over the labour-intensive aspects of farming.

Why should farmers automate?

We’ve had automation in factory settings for a while now. But there are far more variables to consider with farming: unpredictable weather, changing light, variable terrain, mud and bogs appearing after rain, and the most unpredictable elements of all—sentient beings. Agribots need to be able to account for all these sporadic factors.

The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is not world domination nor destruction but economic and environmental optimization. The most logical course of action for a farmer, is to apply the optimal input, no more, no less. AI has the capacity to gather data, analyze it and determine the perfect levels of fertilizer, pesticide, water and other factors. It can even tell you the right times for delivery, creating the ideal conditions for maximum crop yields.

What does automated farming look like today?

We already have automatic steering systems ( like those from Trimble and Ag Leader) that keep tractors on precise paths as they work. These can be installed in most modern tractors. However, they still require a human operator to get the machine from shed to field and correct its path in case of unforeseen obstacles.

The next generation of automated machines is in prototype phase with companies like New Holland and Case IH presenting their driverless models in 2016. New Holland’s NHDrive still has room for a human driver but the new driverless model from Case IH looks like something out of Blade Runner, with a streamlined, cabless look. The design is intended for full automation, no humans allowed.

Image credit: Case IH

Both models can be completely monitored and controlled via a desktop computer or tablet. This means the farmer can be out doing other work, checking data periodically from a tablet in their ute. These new models allow you to plot not just the tractor’s work path, but its course out to the field. You can program the machine to negotiate dirt tracks, private roads and whatever else it has to traverse to get there.

The Hew Holland model can seed the next crop as it harvests the last but cannot yet make decisions about obstacles for itself. The Case IH model is capable of detecting obstructions (using a combination of radar, RGB cameras and range finding lasers), halting and then making something like a decision about what to do next. It recognizes moving objects and simply waits for them to clear its path before continuing. If the obstacle is less obvious, it messages the farmer for instructions on how to proceed. These features take it tantalizingly close to having humanesque decision-making power and place the machine in reach of true autonomy.

At this stage in our technological advancement, we still need people for front end loader work. And we can’t yet trust the machines with driving amongst the unpredictable human traffic of public roads. However, our automatons can work alongside operator-driven farm machines and other robots. For example, we now have drones capable of collecting highly detailed images of field characteristics. Analysis of these images can reveal valuable information about crop health, soil type, diseases and pests. They are low cost but provide a high level of definition, making them remarkably valuable to farmers.

The present agribot focus is on replacing repetitive, labour-intensive work. Fruit picking is one of the target industries with the development of precision sensors capable of detecting the exact location and size of fruit, stalks, leaves and – crucially – next season’s buds, to inform the mechanical arms and ensure fast and accurate picking. Japan is leading the race in this area with the development of robotic rice-planters …

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