MARS robot a taste of hired hands of the future?

AGCO’s Fendt division is the home to innovation at the company.  Its MARS system of multiple, small field robots is that company’s current product in development when it comes to autonomous field tools. It is shown here in the field in Marktoberdorf, Bavaria in Germany.  |  Agco photo

DECATUR, Ill. — New technologies are a hot topic with producers at farm shows this season.

The release of the DOT, autonomous farming system at the Ag In Motion show in Saskatchewan made a big splash with its promise of removing the tractor from most fields, relying instead on smaller, decentralized power and multiple field tools.

At the United States Farm Progress Show in Decatur, robotics wasn’t as hot a topic as last year, when Case IH and New Holland both released versions of autonomous tractors.

This year, grain and oilseed grower Todd Olson from southern Minnesota said he came to the show expecting to see more autonomous tools.

“But hey, I can’t afford to make a change in my systems yet. I have good tractors and recent planters. I bought an air seeder two years ago and will have to pay that off. That was my most recent thinking outside the box. That and no-till,” he said.

“I’m not on the fence about this. I will buy autonomous machines in my career. I think they will do a better job of farming than my kids,” he said, poking in the shoulder one of two sons that were walking the big farm show with him.

“We need precision in this business. We waste as little as we can now. But we overproduce for the market. So, we need to under spend and grow profitable crops without getting the rest of the population mad at us or wrecking our soils. It’s technology that will fix that, I think,” he said.

Swarm technology from AGCO will be that company’s move toward an autonomous future.

Its MARS project puts many small farming units into the field, replacing seeding and pest control.

Éric Lesscouret of AGCO said the system will lower farmers’ risks and improve efficiency, as well as eliminating compaction caused by some heavy equipment.

The Mobile Ag Robot Swarms concept being developed at AGCO’s Fendt division in Germany is designed to address some of North American agriculture’s most perplexing issues.

“Bigger isn’t necessarily better. It’s a response to a labour shortage and doing what we know how to do best,” Lesscouret said during the farm show in Decatur.“The technology for this was too expensive for agriculture. There are too few units sold, too few farmers. But technology has gotten a lot cheaper to do now and this isn’t far off.”

That is something Olson would likely agree with.

“I am putting off buying another car right now to see if self-driving will be available in the next couple of years. I think we are on the edge of big change in many things we took for granted as being the way it will always be,” he said.

The AGCO MARS project is in conjunction with the University of Applied Sciences, Ulm in Germany and has been underway for about 18 month. It is expected that farmers may get a look at it at the German farm show Agritechnica.

Each MARS robot has its own planting unit and is electrically driven, recharged by a transport trailer home station.

Communication with the trailer, called the logistic unit, is carried out via the cellular signals to the internet. The logistic unit also handles seed and fertilizer or pesticide supply, battery charging and helps with the navigation of the robots.

Task planning, live monitoring and other directions can be carried out with a tablet from any location. The satellite-based navigation provides autonomous operation and geo-referenced record keeping.

Lesscouret said the Python programing is capable of learning as it works, which means the machines get to know the fields, crops and targets better as it works.

“There are sustainability advantages that will result in lower costs and higher yields. The units will know each plant. And so can the farmer. The machines use even less power than we might have thought. They are really efficient.”

Lesscouret said the system reduces farmer risk of having a single, large machine down at critical times and with robots costing a few thousand dollars each, they are easily scaled for any size farm.

“Lower labour costs, 24-hour operations. These are things farmers try to have now but this might be the better way,” he said.

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