Glacier FarmMedia COVID-19 & the Farm

Rise of the ag-robots

Two major brands will soon be ready to introduce autonomous tractors

Operating on their own, autonomous tractors are getting set to take the ag equipment market by storm. Photo: Case IH

The sight of Case IH’s 400-horsepower robotic Magnum tractor built without an operator’s station at the U.S. Farm Progress Show in August had show goers talking — and talking, and talking. There was a virtual non-stop crowd of onlookers around it from the time the show gates in Boone, Iowa, opened in the morning until they closed at the end of the day.

On the other side of the show grounds, New Holland, Case IH’s sister brand under CNH ownership, unveiled its version of a robotic tractor, a conventional T8 tractor that operated with the same technology under its skin that the Magnum uses. The two tractors are part of the same CNH R&D program. But unlike the Magnum that was built to be just a robot, the T8 can function as both a robot and conventional tractor.

Although robot tractors have appeared at farm shows before, usually as smaller-scale machines, this is the first time a major brand has indicated it definitely intends to produce an over-the-counter, high-horsepower autonomous machine to farmers. Senior executives at both brands said they think robotic tractors are part of the future of ag equipment, and they want to be part of it.

Standing in front of the autonomous T8 tractor during its reveal to members of the farm media, New Holland’s vice president, Bret Lieberman, had this to say: “This (farm equipment) industry has evolved considerably over the last 100 years. I don’t think that any of us can expect we’re going to be here 100 years from now if we don’t continue to evolve.”

Case IH’s vice-president Jim Walker echoed that sentiment as he stood in front of his Magnum, “We think an autonomous vehicle with today’s farm conditions is a perfect match.”

The autonomous technology inside these machines was created through a joint effort between CNH and Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc., which has already developed similar robotic machines for the mining sector. The tractors can be controlled via tablet or regular computer, and a farmer can get real-time information feedback from each tractor at all times as it goes about its business.

A path-plotting screen shows the tractor’s progress, another shows its live camera feed, providing the user with up to four real time views (two front and two rear). A further screen enables monitoring and modification of key machine and implement parameters such as engine speed, fuel levels and implement settings, including seeding rate or coulter downforce. The route to the field can also be planned, providing it only requires movement over private roads. Meaning if everything goes to plan, a farmer can work fields without once leaving the yard.

Work assignments can be programmed into the tractors, which can include working a field with GPS guidance or following pre-planned routes alone or in a convoy to perform other tasks.

Using a combination of radar, LiDAR (range-finding lasers) and RGB cameras, the tractors can detect a wide range of obstacles. If one is detected, the tractor sends a message to the person responsible for its operation, who will decide if and how the tractor can avoid or bypass it.

But although the CNH brands chose to make the robotic tractors the main feature of their displays last August, it will likely be three years or more before they are actually available to dealers. So why show them now?

“At the show today we’re trying to get an idea from Midwest producers — what would they do with it?” Walker said. “How would they like for us to fine tune it? How would they like us to move forward? We’re ready to learn and eager to get it into the marketplace as soon as we can.”

Staff at both the Case IH and New Holland exhibits were busy conducting surveys of farmers to try and get exactly that information.

“Our CEO gave a range of somewhere around three years and we’ll be ready for the market,” said Lieberman.

If that time frame holds and robot tractors hit the market in force, the question becomes what else in the farm fleet likely to change?

Autonomous tractors might influence what implement sizes growers will want to purchase to mate with them. For example, farmers who now use a pair of 600 horsepower conventional tractors with 80-foot seed drills may chose to replace them with three autonomous 400-horsepower robots and the smaller implements they require. Then again, because robots can work virtually continuously, growers may not even need to match horsepower on a one-to-one basis.

“You could have two, three or four of these autonomously working in the field while one operator supervisors those autonomous vehicles,” said Leo Bose, AFS marketing manager at Case IH.

That may go a long way to fixing the farm labour shortage. “Labour continues to be a concern for our customers,” said Lieberman. “We believe that trend is going to continue, so we want to have that technology.”

When farms transition to robotic tractors, NH’s T8 capable of working either as a regular tractor or on its own may be the way many farmers make that change, at least that’s Lieberman’s opinion. And the technology can actually be retrofitted to other conventional tractors to give them dual functionality too.

Motioning to the cabbed T8 Behind him, he said, “This is the way I see it. This is the evolution. The PLM (NH’s digital technology) tools today can do a large portion of the tasks we’re talking about. With autonomy in the unit, this gets us to the next stage.”

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