Farm Robots Common but Face Hurdles

It was August 2021, and in a field outside of Decatur, Illinois, the future seemed at hand.

Raven Industries, at that point recently acquired by CNH Industrial, was showing off a Case IH tractor powered by the company's OmniDrive autonomous grain cart technology.

It buzzed up and down the field pulling alongside, then away from, a combine, and it did it without anyone in the cab.

It wasn't the first time that brand of autonomy had been demonstrated at a major farm machinery show, but this was different, because the technology was about to go from beta testing and controlled environments to real farms with real, paying customers.

Autonomy was coming to store shelves, even for that looming harvest.

Flash-forward to 2023, and Raven was again demonstrating technology outside of Decatur and, again, highlighting autonomous grain cart technology that was on the verge of going to market.

Only, this wasn't the purely driverless system of 2021 but one that would take over driving the tractor when it approached a combine, and an operator in the driver's seat gave the autonomous system the go-ahead.

It was autonomous assist rather than the truly autonomous version that had been shown two years prior.

What gives?

What gives is that autonomy isn't easy -- not the technology itself, not the hardware that makes it happen -- and it's certainly not easy getting it all in the field working comfortably with farmers.

"It's been a journey for us," explains Eric Shuman, vice president and general manager of Raven. "It's been a learning process, weighing out some of the acceptance from customers to take that extra step. It's been a little slower adoption journey than maybe we expected."

Raven and CNH Industrial are not alone. Some early attempts at autonomy have butted up against unexpected roadblocks, and some companies have even scaled back their ambitions, removing driverless autonomy from machines that initially had it.

Still, the tremendous potential of autonomy beckons from across the ag machinery landscape. Manufacturers ranging from the largest global-spanning corporations to the smallest startups are promising big things.

Ag seems to be on a precipice, but of what, exactly?

ROBOTS EVERYWHERE

There was nearly nothing but autonomy on display in September at the FIRA USA event, in Salinas, California. Dozens of robots cut up and down demonstration plots, designed specifically for the labor-intensive specialty crops that dominate in a place like California.

The innovation in those realms can make for an eye-popping display. Tevel, an Israeli company, for instance, has used California farm shows to demonstrate a fleet of fruit-harvesting aerial drones. Half a dozen launch tethered to a power-providing trailer, latch on to an apple, apply a small twist to separate it from the tree and return the fruit to a bin. It's apple-picking, albeit without the corn maze and hayrack ride.

"As it's picking it, we can tell you a massive amount of detail on every single piece of fruit," said Danielle Efargan Hager, a marketing and communications manager with Tevel. "We're not picking as fast as humans can yet, but because we have a continuous energy supply, we can harvest 24 hours a day. We're more efficient."

Efficiency is the goal, especially in areas where labor shortage is most acute and complicated.

Burro is a company that makes smaller robots not designed to take over an operation but just to help out. Versions can carry as much as 1,500 pounds and tow 5,000 pounds, hauling produce from harvesters to a collection point. Expansion packs can add mowing, scouting and even a guard dog function, patrolling a farm and alerting at the sight of an intruder.

Naio Technologies has developed four in-field autonomous robots, ranging from small tool and crop carriers to large weeding machines capable of straddling a row of grape vines to keep them clean. It had more than 400 robots in the field.

"We started looking at what tasks we can automate in agriculture to support farmers in painful and repetitive tasks," said Gaetan Severac, a co-founder.

SPEED BUMPS

But some companies have learned hard lessons along the way about innovative machines and even opted to forget autonomy entirely, at least for now.

That's the story for FarmWise, a manufacturer focused on a mechanical weeding machine. The company had its newest tow-behind implement at the 2023 World Ag Expo, in Tulare, California, where it seemed every third booth was showing off self-driving autonomous equipment.

There was a time FarmWise would have had a similar offering, but no more.

The value in its mechanical weeder is in the artificial intelligence, which aims to be strong enough to destroy weeds, delicate enough to preserve the crop and smart enough to know the difference between the two. The autonomy that had once been built in so it could drive itself through the field? It was ruled overly complicated and expensive. The company is now focused on a tow-behind implement, keeping the artificial intelligence (AI) but ditching the autonomy.

"It's much easier for a farmer to use, and it's cheaper," said co-founder Sebastien Boyer. "The payback period is much shorter. We believe this creates much more value than autonomous."

Carbon Robotics came to a similar conclusion with its LaserWeeder. It uses 30 150-watt carbon dioxide lasers to zap weeds, about as "Star Wars" a solution as it gets.

Moving at just 1 mph (it's no Millennium Falcon), it can fry up to 5,000 weeds per minute. The key is the brains, a supercomputer on wheels that uses AI and fine-tuned optics to blast weeds smaller than the human eye can see.

But, it isn't self-driving, not anymore anyway. After building such a platform, one that was still being demonstrated in 2023, the LaserWeeder team is focused on a towed implement.

"We'll probably at some point go back to our self-driving roots, but that's going to be a little bit of time," said Paul Mikesell, founder and CEO. "There are some regulatory and safety hurdles, and just some issues on farms, in general. Today, there aren't great systems for everything to talk to everything else. That's the kind of stuff we have to work through to get to full autonomy."

(See a DTN story about another weed zapper -- a weed-killing robotic dog -- at https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

MIDWEST MISSIONS

The reservations of some developers haven't stopped others, and big companies and small are aiming to bring the technology to the Midwest. Every major machinery manufacturer has been offering precision GPS and AI solutions, and they've all made major investments and acquisitions in the autonomy field in recent years. Those efforts are paying off in products that are on the verge of coming to market.

In John Deere's case, recent headlines have showcased its looming fully autonomous tractor and tillage technology, already being tested on farms.

Both CNH Industrial and AGCO are putting a major emphasis on making their newest technologies retrofittable, so farmers aren't left needing to buy all-new equipment to join the age of autonomy.

Smaller companies, too, are headed for the corn, soybean and wheat fields.

One Midwest-grown startup is Amos Power, based in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The company is building a tracked, fully autonomous, electric 80-hp tractor with an eight-hour battery life. Unlike similar ventures, there's no driver's seat, but there is an old-school approach.

"A lot of people think we started with the electric, but we started with stability," said Tom Boe, company CEO. "My focus was on making sure we had the center of gravity placed properly, and we had power to the ground, that we had weight optimized."

Another company, Monarch Tractor, is also in on the action. Monarch produces small autonomous, electric tractors. Through a partnership with CNH, it helped with equipment such as the New Holland T4 Electric Power tractor but has big visions for its own line of tractors.

Carlo Mondavi, a company co-founder, sees an autonomous driving, operating tractor as having the potential to help with the farm labor crunch not just by requiring fewer farmers but by enticing more.

"I think farming is going to become more and more sexy," Mondavi said. "The idea was that someone in a cubicle will see something about Monarch and say, 'I want to get into farming.' We want to make it tangible, easy to understand and relatable."

ALWAYS-ON ROBOTS

Solinftec, meanwhile, is more in line size- and taskwise with the specialty-crop smaller robots than the companies aiming to replace tractors for fieldwork, but it's geared for the fields of the central United States and Canada.

The company's robots resemble a rolling card table. Long spindly legs stick up from the crop and are connected by a large frame with a solar panel and plenty of gadgets and sensors.

The machines, dubbed Solix, can scout, giving farmers an ever-present eye on their crop. More recent versions can spray, and some even come with a bug zapper.

The idea is for them to stay in the field throughout the growing season, spending about a week rolling up and down the rows from one end of the field to the other, spotting problems and, thanks to the spray tank and the zapper, taking care of them before they're a drag on yield.

"Look back 100 or 150 years to what your ancestors were doing. They were continuously going to the fields, maintaining that field. They were understanding the different agronomic pieces of what was happening," said Solinftec's Taylor Wetli. "With the Solix platform, that is the concept, that agronomy should be a daily chore."

Solinftec sees a future with always-on robots in the fields, adding in weather data and maybe soil analysis to inform farmers of conditions.

"There's just an incredible amount of agronomic data generated and insights where, ultimately, we can push yields," Wetli said.

GETTING COMFY

Some of the solutions ag technology companies have displayed can be stupefying. Trimble, the Colorado-based software and hardware company that, in September, formed a joint venture with AGCO, held a demonstration day at its headquarters last summer.

A robot dog wandered around the event as the company showcased the precision GPS, AI and autonomy ability in its ag and construction sectors.

What stole the show, however, was a small table set up in the middle of the hubbub. It held a child's slot car racetrack, and a woman sat nearby with determined focus and a headpiece, starting and stopping the car with only her mind.

Will farmers soon be able to think their way to a tilled field?

Even Trimble said there's nothing "soon" about anything like that.

Mind control would safely fall in "Stage 5" of autonomy, fully independent operation. But some companies are finding that even if they could roll out that level of tech -- Stage 5, not so much telepathy -- customers aren't comfortable with it.

Raven has been working through what it dubs the "Path to Autonomy." Operator-assisted autonomy, such as the grain cart automation system Raven displayed last summer and is shipping to customers this year, is Stage 3.

Stage 4 would be supervised autonomy, like it demonstrated in 2021.

The tech is there, and there's belief soon the farmers will be, as well.

"It's going to be a slow adoption curve. It's going to take time for customers to get the confidence. They need to see it to believe it, see enough repetition to be comfortable with a fully driverless system," Raven's Shuman said. "There's not going to be a light-switch moment. It's going to be a continuation of our working with farmers."

Joel Reichenberger can be reached at Joel.Reichenberger@dtn.com

Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @JReichPF

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