Driverless tractors are here, and that’s just the beginning for the future of farming
Industry innovators talk autonomous farming at South Dakota Farm Bureau series
CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. — Ready to offload his harvested corn after a few passes in the field, a farmer watches as a tractor pulling a grain wagon slides alongside him. It meets the combine and positions itself perfectly for the process.
In 2022, that’s a common sight during harvest in South Dakota. But what makes this scenario unique is the fact that there is nobody driving the tractor. The combine operator pressed a button on his tablet in the cab, telling his automated, driverless tractor he’s ready to offload and to meet him at a predetermined stopping point.
It’s a leap in technology that is already a reality, and more advances are coming in the future, according to agriculture industry experts.
“We launched the first driverless tractor that actually syncs with a combine,” said Nick Langerock, who leads global marketing for Raven Industries, a Sioux Falls based ag technology company. “The combine operator has a tablet in his cab and will literally hit a button that says ‘sync,’ and that tractor that’s pulling a grain cart wherever in the field will know where the field has been harvested, won’t drive over any crops, and will sync up to the combine not to where it is, but where it’s going.”
The futuristic vision of autonomous farming was discussed by Langerock and Nick Morrow, a senior vice president of marketing at Verge Ag, during a presentation Monday evening in Chamberlain. The event was part of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Summer Event Series, the goal of which is to provide educational opportunities and access to experts and thought leaders to farmers and ranchers.
No driver required
There is a long way to go before farmers will be able to sit at home and watch on a computer screen as their farm equipment does all the work in the field, from planting, to spraying to harvesting. But advancements in technology are rapidly bringing that pipe dream closer to reality.
Langerock said Monday night that Raven is one of the companies leading the way in making agriculture equipment work harder and smarter.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve innovated and are going beyond product control and into the stuff we never thought we’d be touching. We took a pivot about 15 years ago to focus on making ag retailers successful, and that set us up to get into autonomous equipment,” Langerock said.
Farming technology has evolved as time has passed. Today, farm equipment with GPS positioning and auto-steer are not uncommon features, but Langerock said the future lies in fully automated equipment that takes the operator out of the machine completely and improves efficiency thanks to computer precision.
The OMNiDRIVE is an aftermarket technology solution that transforms existing tractors into driverless machines. That gives a combine operator control to autonomously call a driverless grain cart tractor directly to the harvester to offload without a second operator. This can improve efficiency by allowing farmers to reallocate farm help to other tasks, reduce grain spillage and protect unharvested crops thanks to GPS accuracy. And as an unmanned tractor, it doesn’t have to run unless it’s actually being operated. That means less fuel consumption and features like air conditioning don’t need to run.
The unmanned tractor communicates with its controller in the combine cab via wireless system and responds when it is time to offload. It knows where the field has been harvested so it can avoid running over unharvested crops. It can then be sent to an offload point to meet trucks or other grain wagons.
OMNiDRIVE uses several strategically placed safety cameras to supply obstacle detection. Camera images also run through an artificial intelligence process that recognizes humans, animals, equipment and other dangerous obstacles. The system can also establish the difference between sections of unharvested crops and crops that were missed.
It’s a combination of high-tech systems, including constantly-improving camera technology and artificial intelligence, that makes it all work, Langerock said.
“It’s a system of systems. You take one technology — just the ability to drive down the row with a camera versus a steering wheel and follow rows through a field — that’s a system in itself. Now combine that with spraying controls, with the rate you need to apply, and all that together is a system of systems,” Langerock said.
OMNiPOWER lets the farmer remotely operate a dedicated field unit from a tablet or in autonomous mode. No driver necessary, and the unit can be configured for spreading or spraying work.
The system came to fruition before the Raven was acquired by CaseIH, when Raven needed a platform to demonstrate autonomous equipment in the field. Manufacturers were hesitant to let their machinery be adapted for liability reasons. So Raven developed its own, and OMNiPOWER was born.
Raven generally leases the system to farmers on a yearly basis to give them an idea of how autonomous equipment can be used and benefit an operation.
“We were always working to get our tech in the field, but none of the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) wanted us to use their machines to run autonomously in the field,” Langerock said. “OMNiPOWER has allowed us to get onto farms and showcase how autonomy can work for them without actually having to buy a new machine. It’s been a good thing for us with the feedback we get.”
Making planning easier
Morrow discussed Verge Ag’s Launch Pad product, which helps farmers plan planting and harvesting endeavors to maximize efficiency. Their product is a jumping-off point for transitioning to a more autonomous farming system, he said.
“Our vision is accelerating the transition to autonomous farming. We know it’s not here today, it’s not necessarily here in 25 years, but everyone has to get used to it. And it all starts with a plan,” Morrow said.
Verge’s geospatial software, Launch Pad, was developed to optimize the movement of machinery on the farm. Its software minimizes economic and environmental costs while maximizing field efficiency. The preferred type of efficiency is up to the producer, and the system can be customized to fit individual operations.
How field rows are laid out can make a difference in time and cost needed to make a field profitable, and Launch Pad provides that insight.
“What is a plan? It’s really just a path that guides the equipment to achieve an outcome. It depends on what people want. Sometimes it’s the least cost, sometimes it’s the least amount of time. Sometimes it’s to maintain assets in the soil. Sometimes it’s about the least amount of energy,” Morrow said. “In the end it really has to do with what their lifestyle is.”
The system allows producers to share their approach on how they want their fields worked with their hired help, ensuring it is worked in the style and manner they want. This is particularly useful in larger, non-family operations, where having a field layout plan worked out in advance can be beneficial.
“When it’s not my family (doing the work), when I have a bunch of staff around and you want them to do it the way you want them to do it. This is what we’re going to do in this field. They feel good about planting when they have everything planned and are able to share that information,” Morrow said.
It’s a system that could complement other innovations like Raven’s autonomous equipment, allowing field information to be shared across those platforms, as well.
Langerock said the step between where the industry is now and getting to fully-autonomous farming is a huge one, and there are challenges to making it happen. The latest equipment still requires an operator to be present in the field in some form. He said the technology is there to move past that, but the responsible approach for now is with operator-monitored equipment.
The technology is always improving, but some of it is further behind than others. The lack of widespread broadband cellular and internet service in rural areas limits the ease with which autonomous equipment functions. The Raven systems currently communicate via radio signal as its primary method and broadband as a secondary, but as broadband access hopefully improves, it would become the primary method of communication.
Rough terrain can also prove to be a challenge, Langerock. And, of course, with new technology comes cost, and with supply chain issues and a shortage of microchips still a reality, those issues will need time to work out.
But for the most part, reception to the idea of autonomous farming has been warm.
Scott VanderWal, 59, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau who farms near Volga, said new technology tends to trend on the expensive side before becoming more reasonable as the technology proliferates.
“It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time,” VanderWal told the Mitchell Republic following the meeting. “The kind of money we’re talking about is going to have to come down a long way, but when you think about when we started using computers — my first computer in 1985 when I graduated from SDSU cost me $4,000. Obviously they’ve come down a long way, and I think this will ultimately do that too.”
He said the technology discussed Monday will be something the next generation of producers is likely to embrace as they move into the leadership roles on family farms.
All of us in ag hope that our heirs can take over the farm someday, and (these) opportunities will be there for them to do that.
“There’s a lot of exciting things out there. Someone like me has probably 20 years left of farming years. My son and grandkids are going to have an opportunity to get involved in some of these things. They keep an open mind and are so sharp, they catch on to the electronics and things because they’ve grown up with it. I didn’t grow up with it,” VanderWal said. “All of us in ag hope that our heirs can take over the farm someday, and (these) opportunities will be there for them to do that.”
Langerock recalled a young boy and his father who took part in a driverless tractor tutorial at a demonstration site. After trying out the equipment, the two disembarked the combine and walked out of the demonstration area. Impressed with the unmanned tractor pulling a grain wagon, the boy looked up at his father and said, “Dad, this is great. But what’s mom going to do now?”
That is likely the generation that will fully embrace the new advancements coming down the road in agriculture, Langerock said. It’s an exciting time now, but the future for the next generation is even moreso, he said.
“I’m just excited to see people’s faces when it proves to them that it works. That’s the best feeling because there are a lot of naysayers, but once they actually use it - to see their faces with excitement is pretty cool. It’s a fun time to be in the industry,” Langerock said.