Digital technology is transforming every sector of society and economy, including agriculture. Already, autonomous precision-ag systems, specialised robots and high-tech vehicles are in operation on agri-enterprises across Australia.
On the horizon is another game-changing development: autonomous tractors – ‘intelligent’ machines able to perform pre-programmed cropping tasks on their own, freeing farmers to get on with other things.
In March 2017, two such autonomous concept vehicles (ACVs) netted Silver medals at the prestigious SIMA Innovations in Agricultural Equipment Awards: Case IH Agriculture’s revolutionary ‘cabless tractor’; and New Holland’s NHDrive.
Case IH Autonomous Magnum ACV
August’s AgQuip Field Days was the only Australian appearance of Case IH’s futuristic driverless tractor – the display prototype for a commercial version that will be honed with the help of customer feedback and could be on the market within five years.
The concept vehicle, based on a Magnum tractor already in the Case IH range, was created “to demonstrate the available technology and initiate customer feedback on the need for future autonomous products”, states the company. Its debut at 2016’s Farm Progress, the US’s largest agricultural event, created a global buzz.
And deservedly so: Case IH’s ACV is impressive. Fairly bristling with cutting-edge technology, including the latest international-standards-compliant (Isobus) connectivity tools, it can perform an array of cropping-related tasks, day or night, without human intervention.
“It combines the latest breakthroughs in steering, telemetry, data sharing and agronomic management to provide managers of agricultural enterprises with additional working capacity,” states SIMA’s report.
An on-board system tracks the most efficient trajectory for the task, depending on soil and attachment types. Radar, lidar and on-vehicle camera sensors detect obstacles and other machinery working nearby, relaying near-instantaneous messages to the tractor’s ‘central command’ to manoeuvre around them or stop. The tractor will also stop if it loses GPS signal or position data, or if the manual stop button is pressed, then wait until redirected by a human controller alerted by audio and visual signals.
The farmer can supervise pre-programmed operations remotely using an interactive interface accessed via smartphone or laptop, making manual changes mid-task if needed.
Tailored for the US cropping industry, Case IH’s ACV should also suit Australia’s broadacre enterprises, with similarities including vast acreages and high labour costs.
The company’s Australia-New Zealand marketing manager Pete McCann is enthusiastic about the ACV’s potential.
“The introduction of autonomous machinery is giving us the chance to help growers make their cropping systems more efficient, sustainable and profitable through best use of every dollar spent on inputs like fertiliser, herbicide and fuel,” he says.
“The ACV is a glimpse into the future for agriculture and proof of the impact technology is having on our industry. No-one could have imagined a driverless tractor 10 years ago, but the ACV shows us that one day they could be a reality.
“It’s the perfect example of the possibilities before us and the fact the next big revolution in agriculture could be just around the corner.”
The ACV was designed to inspire feedback from producers on autonomous technology, reminds McCann – and AgQuip visitors provided it.
“Lots of the questions [they] had about the ACV related to the price and release date of autonomous machinery, and what implements it can be used with”, he recalls. “There was also a lot of interest in how a unit like this could collect and apply the software growers are already using, or looking to invest in.”
McCann says that with the rapid pace of development of autonomous technology, “select applications” of the Case IH ACV could be available commercially in the next three to five years.
Case IH is currently collaborating with several other farm-equipment companies to ensure that when autonomous ag machinery is released in Australia, it meets stringent safety standards and delivers value for money, he says.
The competition: New Holland’s NHDrive
New Holland’s “highly versatile” ACV, also a Silver medallist at SIMA’s 2017 awards, combines various innovations – from cutting-edge sensors to “multi-faceted communications technology” – to enable it to work driverless in the field.
The NHDrive continually monitors and analyses its surroundings and the performance of its key components and attachments to fully automate tasks set by the farmer, who manages the work via PC or tablet from the farmhouse – or from the cab of another tractor.
However, “while Case IH ... removed the cab from its tractor in a US market focus, New Holland has kept its tractor multi-purpose”, SIMA notes. On the road or for tasks requiring uninterrupted focus, it can be driven like a regular tractor.
Check out this video of the NHDrive in action.