VIDEO: Field robots: their time is near

BOONE, Iowa — Look ma, no hands! Or cab. While the ability to run farm equipment operator-free has been around for years, Case IH and New Holland are making a move to make it a reality on the farm.

Jim Walker runs Case IH in North America and said his company wanted to get farmer input into autonomous farm equipment and felt the best way was to bring it to a farm show and ask them.

The Farm Progress Show is one of the largest farm equipment events in North America and when the sister companies unveiled their robotic offerings in Boone, Iowa, last week producers flocked to see the driverless gear.

Leo Thompson farms 3,500 acres in Minnesota and was at the show when Case IH removed the cover from its cab-less Magnum tractor.

“This does make it real for me. I can see one on our place. We have to till a fair bit where we are and a couple of these would cut our costs for labour, which is getting harder to get anyway,” he said.

“I’d still want a cab if they offered it, just so we could drive it the old-fashioned way too,” he said.

Across the show grounds, New Holland pulled the cloth off its robotic innovation, and this one would be more to Thompson’s liking. It had most of the same autonomy pieces but kept the cab intact.

While the concept isn’t new, the tools to build it are getting cheaper and the acceptance of farmerless machinery has improved.

Manitoba farmer Matt Reimer produced his own last year and drew attention to the desire for this type of equipment.

German equipment maker Fendt showed off a drone tractor four years ago. John Deere and Kinze have both put unmanned tractors pulling grain carts into the marketplace.

Autonomous Tractor Crop is offering to upgrade one of its diesel, electric modified four-wheel drive machines to full autonomy for about US $10,000.

Orchard and vegetable producers have been running autonomous equipment for half a decade and aerial scouting gear has caused waves in the business for several years.

Dan Halliday of New Holland said radar, lidar and camera technologies developed for collision avoidance have improved the systems and significantly reduced the costs.

“We need to know what farmers want these machines to do and which equipment they will want it on. We have some pretty good ideas, but before we launch these types of technology into the market, we want their input,” Halliday said.

Walker said his company plans to offer the technology in cab-free and standard designs, “provided that is what farmers tell us they want.”

The Case IH machine is based on the 370 horsepower Magnum chassis with the CVT drive system. The 8.7 litre FTP Cursor 9 puts the machine in the row crop and large forage production sectors.

The operator manages, rather than drives the unit, providing direction and control from a tablet in the field or a desktop computer back in the office. Sensors provide feedback and mapping can give autonomous navigation and work plans.

Halliday said producers might find they want to run one machine and have one or more drones in the same field.

“Combines could also be a natural for this technology,” he said.

Leo Bose of Case IH said the ag economy has become so demanding of farmers that this type of equipment fits into the “high-efficiency farming practices of the future,” which is also the new slogan the company unveiled in Boone last week.

New Holland’s concept machine, a T8 with 435 horsepower was already 90 percent automated before they added the autonomous features.

Bret Lieberman of New Holland said the company was filling in the rest of the “gap with safety.”

While driverless tractors, cab or not, would likely be largely ignored by most of the public when they are in the field, transporting on the road would likely draw some attention, said Walker.

Halliday said the prototypes are getting “a good work out in the field” at New Holland but in as little as three years, farmers might be able to order their own. He said there may even be abilities to retrofit recent models for autonomous operation.

Both brands are using technology from Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. The company was developing agricultural equipment offers kits for a variety of equipment.

While the Case IH prototype is missing its cab, the only other items easily differentiating the New Holland from a manned vehicle are the extra WiFi antennas, four cameras on the corners of the cab and the radar and lidar units on the nose of the machines.

Walker said that regulatory jurisdictions will have something to say about large autonomous vehicles, but feels that acceptance will not be far into the future.

Thompson, meanwhile, offered this assessment: “I really would buy one, if the price made sense. I can calculate the payback for the bank.”

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