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Within the next decade, farming as we know it is expected to be revolutionized by the use of self-driving tractors and robots that can perform time-consuming tasks now done by humans.
Sales of major farm machinery have been in a continued slump amid weak prices for key crops such as corn and soybeans, but the ever-present need to control farm costs and increase output will eventually drive farmers to adopt autonomous technologies.
"They (farmers) are a pretty cautious bunch, which is understandable," said Kraig Schulz, co-founder and CEO of Autonomous Tractor Corp., a small private company based in Minnesota that is developing AutoDrive technology for tractors. Its technology is aimed at turning existing tractors into semi-autonomous machines.
Experts say the first wave of autonomous tech in ag will go primarily to higher-value crops, such as tree nuts, vineyards and fresh produce. Also, some suggest that the big tractors could be replaced with self-propelled autonomous implements, such as sprayers in row crops, orchards and vineyards or with other robotic equipment for other specific tasks on the farm.
All told, Goldman Sachs predicts farm technologies could become a $240 billion market opportunity for ag suppliers, with smaller driverless tractors a $45 billion market on its own. Tens of billions could be spent on advanced tech for major farm uses such as precision fertilizer, planting, spraying and irrigation, Goldman predicts.
Rising costs for farm labor and falling costs for self-driving technology also will provide further catalysts for the shift.
On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill giving farm workers in the state — the nation's largest agricultural producer — historic overtime pay.
"This is going to have a serious effect on farming out in California," said Schulz, who expects rising labor costs to be an opportunity for autonomous and even semi-autonomous equipment to replace some of the human labor needed in farming.
"Rising labor costs would certainly be a positive for adoption of automated processes," said Jerry Revich, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.
At the same time, the progress in self-driving technology for automobiles — including both object detection capabilities using multicamera systems, radar and lidar technology — could help speed up and lower the cost of developing autonomous farm machinery.
"Some of the new sensors that help you autonomously park your car, parallel park, backup sensors, cameras and things like that — all that stuff — the cost has come way down on it and it's allowed us to leverage it more in our machines," said Matt Rushing, a vice president in charge of precision ag and advanced technology for AGCO.
The content and technology to move to driverless cars cost about $2,700 per vehicle, according to Goldman Sachs. In agriculture, autonomous driving equipment would require technology where there is a slightly higher complexity, but "not disproportionately higher," Revich said.
"We're watching the sensor and technology prices really move down," said Rob Zemenchik, global product marketing manager for Case IH's precision farming unit, Advanced Farming Systems.
Europe's CNH Industrial, known for its Case IH tractor brand, unveiled an autonomous concept tractor last month in Iowa at the Farm Progress Show, one of the world's largest farm shows. CNH's autonomous tractor could presumably work unmanned around the clock and uses GPS and sensor technology. The grower could remotely monitor and control the machine using a device such as a tablet.
CNH's concept tractor does maintain the driver cab so the operator can perform tasks not presently suited to automation, such as commuting between fields or going through suburban or rural community roads to reach a farm.
"We're focusing on perfecting the off-road parts of the solution and we're very comfortable with our progress to date," said Zemenchik. CNH's autonomous tractor could come to market as early as 2020.
A Deere spokesman said the farm equipment giant does not have a driverless tractor on the market, although the company has done some work on driverless technology in orchards.
Deere's strategy has been generally to develop ag technologies internally, although it recently tried to buy Monsanto's Precision Planting, but the Justice Department blocked that deal.
The autonomous driving trend isn't limited to large farm machinery. There's also interest in smaller tractors and ag robots, and some see them working in groups of five or more in a swarm-like action.
One lure for the smaller machines is they would be lighter and reduce soil compaction, a problem today with heavy tractor machinery and one that can reduce crop yields.
According to Goldman Sachs, a fleet of smaller automated tractors could lift farmer revenue by more than 10 percent and reduce farm labor costs. It also suggests that precision ag technology used today is already saving growers money and increasing yields.
Globally, Goldman estimates that advances in ag technology — including such things as autonomous ag vehicles, farm robots, drones, as well as precision in planting, fertilizing and irrigation — could result in farm yields potentially rising by more than 70 percent by the year 2050.
"You'll start to see more and more autonomous vehicles, especially smaller vehicles in farming, replacing some of the manual work that we would have seen being done by humans," said Rushing, the AGCO executive.
Indeed, AGCO has a concept that would give small mobile, cloud-controlled units the capability to perform various tasks in farming. The technology from AGCO's Fendt subsidiary "is focused on eliminating not only the cost and inefficiencies of an operator, but also the cost of the tractor and the planter tool bar as well," according to the company.
AGCO expects a fleet of field robots could also be offered as a service by dealers to farmers since they could presumably be put on a trailer and delivered. If that happens, the Duluth, Georgia-based company said it could reduce the capital costs for the farmer since they wouldn't need to make a big equipment purchase.
For some farmers, automation is already here. Robotic milking machines are used by some dairies, and planting is automated in vegetables, yet weeding and harvesting of vegetables and fruit largely relies on hand labor.
Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, California-based start-up, is using robotics and smart tech to automate lettuce thinning with a so-called lettuce bot.
"It's a product that has been doing pretty well not only because it's an alternative to scarce (farm) labor that we have in California but also because it does a better job than humans can," said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology. He added that the company also has a machine known as See and Spray, which can identify plants and weeds to spray chemicals precisely.
Fragile crops such as fresh tomatoes and strawberries have some of the most hand-labor needs but Heraud said the industry is working on smart machines to automate some of the harvesting of these crops and it could be available to growers within five to 10 years.
"Already, it's feasible but it needs to be cheaper and more reliable," he said.