A SWARMFARM robot spraying on a farm in Australia. Bloomberg The Washington Post
INTERNATIONAL - The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available, which means machines will be able to take over many tasks. Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and equipment will be able to spray, plant, plough and weed.

It’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted, thanks to small start-ups in Canada and Australia.

While industry leaders Deere and CNH Industrial haven’t said when they’ll release similar offerings, Saskatchewan’s Dot Technology has sold some so-called power platforms.

In Australia, SwarmFarm Robotics is leasing weed-killing robots that can also do tasks like mow and spread. The companies say their machines are smaller and smarter than the gigantic machinery they aim to replace.

Sam Bradford, a farm manager at Arcturus Downs in Australia’s Queensland state, was an early adopter as part of a pilot programme for SwarmFarm last year. He used four robots, each about the size of a truck, to kill weeds.

In years past, Bradford had used a 36.5m-wide, 16-ton spraying machine that would blanket the field in chemicals, he said.

The robots were more precise. They distinguished the brown of the paddock from green foliage, and targeted chemicals at the weeds. It’s a task done two to three times a year over 8 000 hectares. With the robots, Bradford said he could save 80% of his costs.

“There’s also savings for the environment from using less chemicals and you’re also getting a better result,” said Bradford.

Costs savings have become crucial as a multi-year rout for prices depresses farm incomes and tightens margins.

Farmers need to get to the next level of profitability and efficiency, and “we’ve lost sight of that with engineering that doesn’t match the agronomy,” said SwarmFarm’s chief executive Andrew Bate. “Robots flip that on its head. What’s driving adoption in agriculture is better farming systems and better ways to grow crops.”

In Saskatchewan, the first commercially sold autonomous tractors made by Dot are hitting fields this spring.

Farmers who bought equipment as part of a limited release are required to watch them. But after the trial run, the producers will be able to let the equipment run on its own next year. Growers will no longer need to sit behind the steering wheel.

But farmers do more than steer, said Alex Purdy, the head of John Deere Labs and director of precision agriculture technology. Deere hasn’t released autonomous equipment because available technology isn’t good enough to replace people, he said.

A modern tractor does thousands of tasks, and to provide a fully autonomous solution, a deep understanding of each of those tasks was needed to automate them, said Brett McClelland, the product manager of autonomous vehicles at CNH Industrial.

“To survive, farmers are always having to try to become more efficient and to keep costs down, while improving yields,” farmer Bradford said.

“The way that’s going to be achieved is in accuracy, by being timely with the operations and applying inputs where they are needed, rather than with a broad blanket approach to large areas.

“That’s where these robots will work.” 

The Washington Post/Bloomberg