Smart Approaches to Autonomous Farming Deliver Targeted Value

“You know, if I could go out and hire 20 people today, I would.”

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That was how my conversation about autonomy started with Ben Sauder, Vice President of Agronomy at Frenchman Valley Cooperative (FVC) in western Nebraska. “Out here, there’s a whole lot a land and not a lot of people, and it’s almost impossible to find employees.”

It was a fortuitous conversation for me, as I was going about the business of collecting speakers and panelists to present at the upcoming PrecisionAg Vision Conference coming to Phoenix in January. In particular, in reference to a panel discussion on scaling and commercializing autonomy and robotic systems.

The really encouraging thing to see with these systems now is how they are really going after the true pain points in the crop production process. Rather than focusing on the big prize of “Level 5” full autonomy, manufacturers are tackling scalable issues that bring incremental efficiency and agronomy improvements.

For Sauder, who brought in one of the Raven OMNIPower autonomous dry spreader rigs to integrate into the fleet, the potential benefits cut right to two of his biggest challenges — hiring applicators and maximizing application efficiency.

“Our new computer-guided applicator means we can cover more acres safely in a given day with fewer people,” he explains. “Having a driverless rig means being able to reallocate human resources in a way that’s safer and more efficient. It will actually help us cover more acres with less fuel while reducing the potential for accidents day and night.”

Sauder says his average application professional can crank out about 1,100 acres in an average workday, a total he says will need to more than double in the future as hiring gets increasingly difficult. He hopes autonomous systems can help the company get there.

Another important benefit to the autonomous system for FVC has been the “wow” factor with young applicators they have hired. This generation has grown up controlling things with computers and tablets, he says, so having a real-world application for controlling field equipment makes the experience interesting and exciting.

There is a long way to go before technologies like OMNIPower become ubiquitous in large acre row crop markets. But making a significant dent in core retail challenges such as efficiency and employee retention will only help move the evolution and adoption of autonomy forward, and that alone is great progress.

In specialty crop markets, some of the biggest recent progress has focused around helping field workers become more efficient. GUSS Robotics, for example, is offering a spray system that allows a single employee to operate up to eight of its autonomous sprayers using a remote laptop.

For grape harvesting, the Burro autonomous cart follows field workers as the crop is harvested and moves loaded carts to packing areas to eliminate heavy lifting and increase overall harvest efficiency.

This isn’t to say that advancements on higher levels of autonomy aren’t moving forward. John Deere’s acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics and CNH’s plans for the Raven OMNI branded systems demonstrate significant commitment to scaling up autonomous systems. But it is encouraging to see autonomy making meaningful strides by delivering on targeted value.

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