Autonomous farm equipment can be an economical alternative to conventionally operated machinery. That’s if establishment of intelligent controls is cost-effective, says Jordan Shockley, assistant professor in agricultural economics for the University of Kentucky-Extension.

When accounting for yield increases due to reduced soil compaction, farmers could see an increase in net returns of 24 percent compared to operating with conventional machinery, Shockley found in a recent study.

He and his colleagues evaluated costs based on an average 2,100-acre Kentucky grain farm. They compared conventional and autonomous machinery in terms of benefit, farm size, field day-risk aversion and grain-price scenarios.

“We looked at more medium-sized autonomous equipment based on a platform built by University of Kentucky agricultural engineers,” he said.

Mid-sized equipment may offer advantages compared to large conventionally operated equipment. Farmers have long used larger equipment to benefit from economies of size, reduce labor and to complete fieldwork in narrow good-weather windows. But heavy equipment can lead to soil compaction. Other problems involve difficulty with controlling large implements on irregular terrain and moving equipment on public roads, the researchers said.

They cited 2011 research by J.D. Luck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who found larger equipment can lead to input-metering errors and application errors with overlapping. It can also cause velocity variations across implement width when turning.

Smaller lighter-weight machinery could be an option. Research at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England, shows that such equipment could operate efficiently in small irregularly shaped fields and on irregular terrain where large equipment can’t be efficiently used. The university in 2019 will study how autonomous equipment performs on multiple irregularly shaped fields.

“We hope this will help us measure efficiency and cost of production of autonomous equipment with the field size and shape,” said James Lowenberg-DeBoer, chairman of the agri-technology economics department at Harper Adams University.

Small- to medium-sized autonomous machines of the future would likely operate in fleets and have intelligent controls to perform field operations, Shockley said. Various prototypes have been built to accommodate attachments such as tillage tools, seeders and sprayers. But harvesting grain will be difficult with smaller equipment due to the volume of biomass to be processed. So harvesters may be the last to the automated, he said.

Steve Gerrish is CEO of Qmira, an Indiana-based company engaged in artificial-intelligence technology to diagnose and treat parasites causing crop and yield loss. He also created the agBOT Challenge to highlight how robotics and high-speed internet can advance the agriculture industry.

“If we could reduce labor costs by half on any size farm for planting and tillage it will make autonomous equipment more competitive,” he said. “The verdict is out on size needs. Smaller farmers won’t need commodity-sized equipment. Agriculture is splitting into two areas – commodity agriculture and small more-vertically oriented operations.”

Herbicide application is one area where there may be early movement toward autonomous equipment, Gerrish said.

“Weed-detection methods and smart nozzles could dramatically change field coverage,” he said. “Smaller material volume could increase application acres per machine or reduce size needs.”

Lowenberg-DeBoer said small- or medium-scale autonomous equipment could reduce production costs and reduce the investment required to farm. A 500-hectare farm – about 1,250 acres – in the United Kingdom’s West Midlands could reduce wheat-production costs by about USD$20 per ton and equipment investment by 70 percent.

“The reduction in equipment costs occurs because the autonomous farm uses smaller equipment more intensively,” he said.

Structural changes needed

But a move toward smaller autonomous machinery would involve dramatic changes in the structure of agriculture.

“The implications of autonomous machinery likely will be profound and encompass various disciplines,” Shockley and his co-authors wrote. “At the macroeconomic level, replacing human operators with advanced technology will influence labor markets. At the microeconomic level, issues related to economies of size and scope, capital-labor substitution, environmental quality and rural development will be influenced by adopting autonomous machinery.”

Lowenberg-DeBoer said, “This is a shift equivalent to motorized equipment replacing horses in the early 20th century. Autonomous equipment is technically feasible now. The two biggest challenges to adoption are regulatory and supply-chain issues.”

The University of Kentucky researchers wrote, “The opportunity rarely presents itself in which economics can influence the initial development of a technology.”

Evaluation of autonomous-machinery systems will provide equipment engineers with information about costs and benefits required for autonomous machinery to compete. But a challenge will be how much to invest in the development of intelligent controls necessary for autonomous machinery to work, Shockley said.

Manufacturers would need to factor in profitability, additional implementation costs – such as insurance, legal, product support and subscription costs – and opportunity costs related to switching from conventional to autonomous machinery. The price that manufacturers could charge producers would likely be some fraction of the break-even investment price, Shockley said.

The study was published in the February 2019 edition of “Precision Agriculture.” Shockley is scheduled to speak at the InfoAg Conference, held July 23-25 at Union Station in St. Louis. Visit infoag.org for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.