PLATTSBURG, MO (DTN) -- Autonomous tractors aren't here yet. But we can hear them working just over the hill.
Last week, both Case IH and New Holland unveiled concept autonomous row-crop tractors at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. The red one was based on the Magnum; the blue one on the T8. These driverless models aren't on the market now, but according to New Holland's CEO Rich Tobin, they -- or a version of an autonomous tractor based on the same technology -- could be for sale in as little as three years.
Such a close target date is a surprise to some. Concept autonomous tractors have been around for at least 20 years, but none has yet made it to market. In the early 1990s, John Deere showed off a small green tractor with no cab. In 2011, Kinze Manufacturing modified a Deere 8430 to autonomously pull a grain cart alongside a combine. Each time a concept vehicle is revealed to the public, it is with the caveat that roadblocks are keeping driverless farm vehicles out of farmers' fields.
Some of those roadblocks are disappearing, Jim Walker, vice president of Case IH North America Agricultural Division, told DTN/The Progressive Farmer "Several things have happened to make it (a commercialized autonomous vehicle) more of a reality than it was a while back. When we first started looking at it 10 to 15 years ago, the specialized componentry that needed to be added to a tractor was so costly, it did not make sense economically. Costs have come down significantly, and technology has improved. Now it is a reality."
The vision for autonomous vehicles is that they could fill a labor gap in some farming operations. Conceivably, they could operate 24 hours a day, providing reliable, predictable work. They could also move in tandem with manned vehicles or with other autonomous vehicles. Once unmanned vehicles reach the buying public, they could bring new efficiency to farming.
The autonomous concept tractors Case IH and New Holland (named NHDrive) have introduced share technologies that are transferable to other farm vehicles. "Basically, the technology is the same (in both brands' concept vehicles)," said Bret Lieberman, New Holland's vice president of North America. He refers to the package of technologies as a "kit" and suggests it could easily be adaptable to other New Holland and Case IH vehicles.
Automated guidance is the first tool in the kit, although in an era when autosteer is an everyday technology, there is nothing surprising here. GPS signals, electronics and hydraulics make it easy to program a course in the field. Both Case IH and New Holland concept tractors can run pre-mapped routes, much like prescription planting routes. A remote operator also can change course if he wants. All he needs is a computer or a mobile tablet, and an internet connection.
Obstacle avoidance is a major piece of the autonomy tool kit. Cameras are a part of the avoidance technology. On-board cameras broadcast from the tractor, so the operator has a real-time picture of the vehicle's progress. It's what keeps the vehicle safe and, more importantly, keeps people and objects outside the vehicle safe.
Radar, and LiDAR (range finding lasers) are also part of the avoidance technology. The tractors are programmed to stop when they encounter an obstacle. The remote operator can then steer the vehicle around it. "Sensor technologies are getting better all the time," said Chris Foster, lead engineer on the New Holland autonomous team.
So far, however, these technologies have not been able to solve the mystery of a hole in the field. "Right now we are not picking up what we call 'negative obstacles,'" Foster said. "But we are aware that that is something we will have to detect and we are working on that capability."
Possible imperfections in sensor systems are major impediments to the final launch of autonomous farm vehicles. The idea that a driverless tractor could hit a person, animal or object is terrifying to both manufacturers and potential owners. In the event of such an accident, who is liable? The company that made the technology? Or the person who owns and employs it?
"That remains to be seen," Walker said.
There is no case law on such liability issues. But as autonomous automobiles and trucks take to the road, it is only a matter of time before an accident will lead to a lawsuit, which will lead to a legal precedent. Once that happens, liability issues will become clearer.
In the meantime, driverless cars are paving the way for driverless tractors, Walker said "I think the general public is becoming more accepting" of the idea of autonomous vehicles.
He also points out that unlike driverless cars, which must dodge human drivers darting in and out of traffic, autonomous tractors will operate in controlled environments so surprises should be minimal.
Both Case IH and New Holland surveyed visitors at their autonomous tractor displays at the farm show. They wanted to gauge farmer acceptance of the idea. "The next thing we need to do is evaluate the market potential," Lieberman said.
Surveyors also asked whether visitors preferred a cab-less model like Case IH exhibited or one with a cab like the NHDrive. New Holland chose to put a cab on its display model to show flexibility. A farmer could operate it himself sometimes, and at other times, he could let technology take the controls. Case IH said it also could provide a cab if customers preferred.
To be useful, smart tractors must be able to talk to smart implements. Lieberman said New Holland is working to make planters and other implements more capable of working with autonomous tractors.
Row-crop operations in the Midwest and South might not be the first to see driverless tractors. "Vegetable areas are where I think we will see the early adoption of the autonomous vehicle," Walker said. Fruit and vegetable farms tend to have less variable terrain and often are laid out in regular patterns that would be easy to program.
New government regulations also will have to be in effect before autonomous vehicles become marketable. Walker said California and Florida already have such legislation, and Arizona has a governor's degree in effect.
Finally, farmers will have to develop a level of confidence in the technology that might not yet exist, Walker said "We will have to see that generation of producers that are savvy to the technology. This would be right up their alley."
In the meantime, Case IH and New Holland have created a buzz.
"There is a bit of 'Wow. It might be closer than I think,'" Lieberman said.
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