The race to bring robots to the field is on


We’ve read headlines about a future with robots in the field and witnessed the unveiling of a few self-driving prototypes at farm shows over the past few years, but there probably hasn’t been a single event that collected as many of these concepts and products as Agritechnica in Hanover, Germany last week.

The innovation in making machines that can work without human direction was eye-opening. We’re quickly moving beyond the initial concept stage.

We saw more than half a dozen small, autonomous robots at the show, for tasks ranging from weed control (using herbicides, stamping, lasers, water jets) to planting corn to cutting grass.

But the investment in autonomy — and the sensor technology that enables it — is definitely not limited to small machines.

Some of the full-size tractors and combines on display in Hanover last week come with real-time sensors and artificial intelligence that make them capable of nearly full autonomy. While the big brands might not be marketing them as “driverless,” they’re showing they can build machines where the operator is really only there to monitor performance, to drive it to the field and back, and because someone still has to sit in the cab for regulatory and safety reasons.

Here are some examples of the autonomous tech on display at Agritechnica (which we’ll be covering here on RealAg in the coming weeks):

  • Fendt’s Xaver swarm robots — 12 of these ‘drink-cooler-on-wheels’ lookalikes are supposed to replace an 8 row planter
  • SPL’s autonomous crawler that identifies weeds and then kills them with lasers
  • Naio Technologies’ small robots that till between row crops
  • Bosch’s Bonirob research robot that works with a drone to find weed patches, identifies weeds, then chooses and executes the best way to kill them
  • The Bosch/Bayer Smart Sprayer system, which also IDs weeds and determines best way to kill them
  • Small robots for cutting grass and potentially other tasks in the Conpleks and John Deere exhibits
  • Kubota’s small driverless tractor that it plans to commercialize and sell to Japanese rice farmers next year
  • Claas expanding its CEMOS automated threshing system on combines and tractors
  • Sensors and cameras that identify crop rows and direct tillage between rows from Claas and Deere
  • New Holland’s driverless half-track concept tractor
  • New Holland’s new Intellisense system increasing autonomy in CR Revelation combines
  • Geoprospector’s soil sensor that finds soil compaction and automatically adjusts tillage depth accordingly
  • Pottinger’s seedbed prep sensor that automatically adjusts tillage to create desired soil surface texture
  • The DOT autonomous platform from DOT Technology Corp (actual unit wasn’t there, but there was a DOT display)
  • Sensors for real-time, automatic nitrogen fertilizer and manure application.

The list could go on, especially when we look at innovations that represent steps toward autonomy.

In all these cases, a combination of high labour costs, improved time/energy efficiency, and weed control restrictions are driving this innovation, and will likely influence if and when they are adopted by farmers.

There are still many questions to be answered about costs, liability, dependability, and what adoption will look like, but there’s certainly a race underway right now to bring more robots to the farm.

Related: 4 things I’ll be looking for at Agritechnica

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