Self-driving capabilities revolutionized the farm long before this technology was ever discussed for the road. In fact, to move machines through a field with repeatable accuracy, sensors and advanced guidance technology have been used in the agriculture industry for more than twenty years.
Farmers have always been tech-forward, not because technology is “cool,” but because they face many challenges inherent to agriculture where technology serves a real and vital purpose. And now, more than ever, technology must play a starring role in agriculture. That’s because the world’s population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing the global food demand by 50%. Additionally, today, fewer people stay on the farm and the current agriculture workforce is aging. This creates an increased need for skilled labor.
The unpredictable nature of farming adds to these challenges: there is extreme variability in weather and often short windows of time to complete tasks.
All of this affects a farmer’s ability to produce food, which is why autonomous vehicles have emerged as the next big innovation on farms. Full machine autonomy combined with automation will revolutionize how farmers can effectively and sustainably feed, clothe and fuel the world.
The flexibility to manage all facets of the farm
A day in the life of a farmer involves many decisions on and off the field. On the field, farmers make decisions such as when to start preparing soil for the spring planting season or how much fertilizer to use. Off the field, farmers make decisions like how many seeds to buy for the coming year or how to react to changing commodity markets. The effect of these important decisions can be drastic and not seen until months later.
Fully autonomous tractors provide farmers with the flexibility to manage pressing tasks and decisions within their operation more efficiently because the tractor can go from point A to point B without someone needing to be in the cab of the machine, all while performing an important job along the way. During the most critical times in agriculture, farmers work from before sunrise until long after sunset. This means a farmer could spend up to 18 hours confined to their machine. Not only does autonomy allow farmers to focus on other tasks they must do each day, but it alleviates the mental and physical impact of sitting in the same spot so long. Simultaneously completing two or more tasks can make a big difference to farmers trying to make it home at night for family supper.
The evolution of technology: From automation to fully autonomous vehicles
An important part of automation is GPS guidance technology. GPS steers agricultural robots through a field in straight lines and informs location by continuously checking its global position. As a tractor moves through a field, it continuously collects data to proactively improve logistics and productivity. Real-time data gives farmers peace of mind and the ability to see their tasks happen as planned. Data also delivers insight to the success of the operation so efficiencies can be made in the future.
When autonomous farming machines move through a field, they function as human eyes and “see”—though what they’re looking for is different than what an on-road autonomous vehicle looks for. The tractor must perceive the environment around itself and make intelligent decisions about what it “sees”—because on a farm, an obstacle may be a fallen tree branch or an animal.
One way to achieve this level of perception is through stereo cameras that enable a 360-degree view of the field. Cameras such as these can detect and “understand” obstacles. Artificial intelligence embedded into the equipment then tells the tractor when to move or stop based on the information analyzed. This is done by breaking down an image to a raw image, a depth map, and a per-pixel classification of each part of the image. This allows for distinctions between the ground, sky, or a foreign object that doesn’t belong in the field.
Other technology options for delivering autonomy include sensors such as LiDAR and radar that enable the tractor to see obstacles when lighting conditions are challenging. LiDAR uses a pulsed laser to determine the position of obstacles while radar uses electromagnetic waves. Both technologies are able to report an object’s distance, direction and velocity, helping the tractor safely navigate through an area, an approach that is common for on-road autonomous vehicles.
The high-tech farmer experience
Autonomous farming vehicles are changing agriculture and the technology industry. By no longer being tied to the cab of a tractor, work can get done quickly, day and night. Once the tractor is transported to the field and configured for autonomous operation, the farmer can swipe from left to right on a smartphone to start the machine and walk away. This requires a tremendous amount of trust on the part of farmers as their high standard of quality must be met. They are well aware that almost any issue can impact their crop and ultimately their livelihood.
When a machine runs autonomously, farmers can monitor its progress through a smartphone—no matter if they are sitting at their kitchen table or find themselves on another section of their farm. This level of remote management lets farmers watch the work get done from anywhere while also monitoring job quality. If the machine encounters an issue, farmers receive alerts on their smartphones and can make remote adjustments to which the system will adapt.
Farming is a high-tech operation, and that will only continue to expand into the future. Today, autonomy helps farmers grow more food to feed the ever-growing world population. Tomorrow, autonomy will bring even more possibilities to agriculture.
By Noah Schwartz, lead perception engineer with Bear Flag Robotics