John Deere autonomous autonomous

This concept tractor — recently displayed by John Deere at a farm show in Germany — is among autonomous machines at the dawn of agriculture’s robotic age.

ST. LOUIS — What could a farmer do if he didn’t have to do it? Plenty, Robert Saik believes.

While that statement sounds like it defies logic, the advent of robotic farming equipment could usher in more efficiency and free time.

“In my mind, it’s not a question of whether or not robots will show up on your farm, it’s just when they will. Because they will,” Saik, a Canadian ag futurist and crop consultant, said at a recent conference here.

The technology has until recently been mostly limited to small farms and specialty crops. But large-scale grain production represents a huge, untapped market. A combination of advancing technology and lower costs will lead to a much different look in the fields of the future, Saik said.

In the forefront is a system named Dot, named after the inventor’s mother. Dot represents a 100% autonomous, broad-acre, large-scale farming platform. The largest machine has a 30-foot drill and a capacity of 300 bushels.

It utilizes a Windows-based tablet that communicates to the unit or units through a local network. Bandwidth between the tablet and Dot is designed with the ability to allow transfer of large amounts of data. It can be run fully autonomous in the field or by remote control in yards or equipment sheds.

“Autonomously, what would you do on your farm if you didn’t have to do it?” Saik said. “Agronomically, what would you do on your farm if you didn’t have to do it? If you could have a robot doing the work for you, what would you do?”

He said robotic farming can address the three negative Ds of agriculture – dangerous, dirty and dull.

“Farming is dangerous, Saik said. “It’s estimated that when we move to autonomous farming implements, we will reduce death and injury on farms by 80% because a lot of death happens when people are around equipment.”

A field can be planted, sprayed or harvested without the need for an operator to wash his hands. And allowing machines to do the work provides time for farmers to do other things.

“Farming is dull,” Saik said. “The first couple of days when you’re out in the field are exciting. Then it gets pretty dull.”

Among other benefits, automated machines may improve precision farming.

“You could variable-rate everything,” Saik said. “No field — even flat fields — are not 100% uniform. We’re looking at variably applied seed, populations, densities. Also, fertilizer and herbicide applications. A lot of these things you can do today.”

Saik believes many in agriculture are missing the value of autonomous farming.

“I see so many people rushing around with precision agriculture but the agronomy is poor,” he said. “So if you have poor agronomy with precision agriculture, you just have poor agronomy precisely applied. Can we slow down a little and put it on properly? I haven’t got time. But what if you didn’t do it?”

Robotic machines could also play a critical role in planting cover crops. Saik pointed out that putting seed in the ground in the fall can be tricky, logistically.

“Could we utilize autonomy to better seed cover crops? It makes sense because I’m trying to harvest at the same time I need to plant cover crops,” he said. “It’s hard to be in the planter or the drill and the combine at the same time. What if you didn’t have to? Get up in the morning with the dew still on, you fill up your autonomous seeder, then you go combining.”

Autonomous machines could also fill other roles — not only soil sampling, but analysis. One implement includes a disk that penetrates the surface and takes readings at various depths.

“If you had that data in real time, you would eliminate all the process where you take the soil sample, send it in, etc.,” Saik said. “If you combine that with an algorithm so that the soil information is coming at you in real time, there is no way an agronomist can program that.”

Another use is weed control.

“We could use cameras on sprayers to detect where the weeds are, then blast them with laser beams or herbicides or steam or flames, or whatever the organic people are using these days,” Saik said. “How much of a reduction of inputs would that be?”

Robotic farming will ultimately become more and more common as grain producers learn about its benefits, Saik believes.

“As technology converges, we’re going to see robotics make their way into greenhouses and vineyards. Small robots are making their way into agriculture,” he said. “But that ain’t our world. Ours is 3,000- 5,000- and 30,000-acre farms.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.