Automate the Mind of a Farmer

Trimble Sees Potential to Automate Farming Decisions as Well as Machines

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Trimble formed a partnership with HORSCH to build autonomous solutions for machines and workflows. An early result is an autonomous HORSCH sprayer, powered by Trimble technology. (Photo courtesy of Trimble)

Dave Britton is vice president of product management at Trimble, headquartered at Westminster, Colorado. In his role, Britton oversees product strategy. He previously worked at Uber as a general manager where he learned how data makes systems more efficient. It is a knowledge base he brings to Trimble.

"With data comes the opportunity to test, learn, optimize and think about new ways to deliver value," he said.

DTN/Progressive Farmer conducted an interview with Britton recently about incorporating data and workflow into on-the-ground technologies to produce value, efficiency, and sustainability for farm managers. Here is what he said.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: You once worked for Uber. What out of that experience can you bring to an agricultural setting?

Dave Britton: Uber focused on using data to drive efficiency. It was a disruptive way of thinking [about] how people can move around their cities and opportunities to see how systems can be made more efficient. With data comes the opportunity to test, learn, optimize, and think about new ways to deliver value.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: How has that experience translated to Trimble's development strategies?

Britton: We're looking at how you can use product telemetry and information to identify whether features work the way that we would like them to and how technology can make the entire industry more efficient.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: Would you explain how automation moves workflow toward autonomy?

Britton: Automation takes a task that requires manual intervention and figures out how to execute it without that intervention. But there are no decision-making engines that help that automation loop decide whether it should stop or continue. When you talk about autonomy, you have a series of automations and decision-making engines that are determining, based on real time contextual information, which automation loop to run effectively.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: Trimble formed a partnership with HORSCH to build autonomous solutions -- machines and workflows. An early result is an autonomous HORSCH sprayer, powered by Trimble technology. In the wider scheme of advancements, what does this collaboration mean to the progress of autonomous farming operations?

Britton: What makes autonomy and agriculture so exciting and interesting is that it isn't just about being able to move in an environment safely. There's a whole work process that needs to be done, as well. [There's] going to be a lot of learning that we need to do from an industry perspective to be able to fully automate all the decisions that a farmer is making, when they're making them, when they're doing their work.


DTN/Progressive Farmers: From a farmer perspective, what are one or two things that may concern them about autonomous operations?

Britton: Ultimately, they want to make sure the job is going to get done correctly. I think people are excited about the prospect and want to jump in and try it. But like any adoption curve, farmers will look at the opportunity, but need to also see its economic value.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: How do you manage expectations?

Britton: You'll see points in the autonomy journey where there's major steps forward, but there's also going to be incremental opportunities. [Farmers will be exposed] to the technology, whether through their own actions or through their own networks, people they talk to and trust. It's a reason I think we are in the early days of building trust in the technology. It's going to take a number of seasons to prove to people that this will do what they expect.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: How do you get a farmer to walk away from an autonomous sprayer or tractor and just let it do its thing?

Britton: Make sure that you've got a really effective notification system, and make sure they can monitor effectively what's happening. The willingness to walk away is going to be born out of experience with solutions that give confidence in what's happening in the field, even though they're not there as a part of it. I think planting and harvesting will be the ones that'll be the hardest for people to let go. I think there's different opportunities within those processes where improved sensors and computer vision will make autonomous adjustments. We're focused on spraying as a place where you could start to see value from autonomy, in part because it's something farmers do multiple times a year.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: Autonomy is more than a power unit moving forward, correct?

Britton: I don't want to sound like I'm underestimating the challenge of moving the power unit. But it's a challenge shared in multiple places and with the sensors that manage it. Think about all of the other interactions that the farmer has with their implements, the things that they're monitoring and the way that they are using them. There are multiple sensory inputs that tell them whether things are working the way that they want them to work. Those are the inputs we have to figure out.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: When you talk about workflows, managers getting used to new processes, new ways of setting up their machines, logistics is going to play a very big role in that.

Britton: Precisely, and the way that you plan and think about how you interact with the machines in some cases, it'll be managed more remotely. In other cases, you'll do a lot more planning upfront, and it'll make you feel like you're doing more in advance and then you let it go.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: Setting aside for the moment legal and liability issues, is there a day coming when the farm manager can create missions for equipment staged at the shop or machine storage facility, push a button, let it go perform the mission and return when it's done?

Britton: I do think that is a possibility. In the long run, I think one of the things, maybe you're highlighting it, is that operating a machine on your property is one thing. Getting it out onto a public road is a different animal. So, transportation of these systems is going to be something that will present new logistical wrinkles for people to work through. But, you know, on a long enough time horizon, I think it's very reasonable to aspire to this.

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Dan Miller