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What Does Autonomous Agriculture Look Like?

What Does Autonomous Agriculture Look Like?

A glance at what the autonomous cropping system of the future might look like.

Back in spring of 2013 I wrote about what "farming of the future" might look like – through the retro-futuristic lens of 1968. It was during the time of the Green Revolution, but some of the predictions seemed a little overambitious for the time. Over this last week, I came to the realization that some of these predictions might not be as far off as they seem – we might not have had 500-bushel corn or autonomous tractors by the year 2000, but, after some of the possibilities were pointed out at the University of Missouri Crop Management Conference, it's clear we're closer than we might think.

The 1968 Kansas Farmer article, "Agriculture 2000," a collaboration between Ford Motor company technical personnel and a panel of scientists assembled at Michigan State University, included illustrations of what "farming might be at the turn of the century" – what initially looked like The Jetsons cartoons. Some of these predictions weren't far off, including satellite-guided GPS units and refrigerators in tractor cab. Meanwhile, things like hovercrafts still seem farfetched in 2014.

Will predictions become reality?
Those predictions of farming with hovercrafts never came true, but autonomous agriculture is becoming more and more of a reality – some automated technology is already used in agricultural equipment.

Autonomous cars have been a fixture of "world of tomorrow" exhibits since as far back as 1939 in the Futurama exhibit of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, who designed the exhibit, later wrote the book, Magic Motorways, in 1940, foreshadowing the advent of the Interstate Highway System, and claiming humans would one day be removed from the process of driving, preventing traffic jams and improving passenger safety.

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Now, Google is testing at least autonomous cars, including Toyota Prius and Lexus RX450h, and as Scott Shearer, agricultural engineering professor at the Ohio State University pointed out to me earlier this week, this technology isn't far from being implemented in agriculture. "Whatever happens in the automotive industry can easily be translated to off-road and agricultural equipment. Controller Area Networks essentially came from the truck and bus industry."

Cropping system of the future
Shearer and his students recently came up with a 3D illustration of what the cropping system of the future might look like – and it's significantly different from today's machinery. The tractor in this model has a machine life of six to seven cropping seasons, coinciding with technological obsolescence; will be reconfigurable for ground clearance and track width, allowing producers to plant and spray with the same machine; uses spark ignition engines, eliminating the cost of after-treatment of diesel exhaust; and is considerably smaller – Shearer's model includes a 50 to 60-horsepower tractor with a gross vehicle weight of 8,000 pounds pulling a four-row planter. This means reduced compaction, easy access for servicing, and easier hauling between fields via semitrailer.

It might be smaller, but it's also autonomous, meaning it can work around the clock. As Shearer notes, "We're going to need more of them, but we're not going to need as many as you think because it's running 24/7 for some operations. Right now if we get a 14 or 16-hour day out of a lot of our equipment in North America, it's a pretty good day."

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