Robots are taking over farms faster than anyone saw coming.
The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available, which means machines will be able to completely take over a multitude of tasks. Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and specialised equipment will be able to spray, plant, plow and weed cropland.
And it’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted thanks to small startups in Canada and Australia.
While industry leaders Deere & Co and CNH Industrial NV haven’t said when they’ll release similar offerings, Saskatchewan’s Dot Technology Corp has already sold some so-called power platforms for fully mechanised spring planting. 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 program 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 120-foot wide, 16-ton spraying machine that “looks like a massive praying mantis.”
It would blanket the field in chemicals, he said.
But the robots were more precise. They distinguished the dull brown color of the farm’s paddock from green foliage, and targeted chemicals directly at the weeds. It’s a task the farm does two to three times a year over 20,000 acres. With the robots, Bradford said he can save 80 percent of his chemical costs.
“The savings on chemicals is huge, but there’s also savings for the environment from using less chemicals and you’re also getting a better result in the end,” said Bradford, who’s run the farm for about 10 years. Surrounding rivers run out to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s eastern cost, making the farm particularly sensitive over its use of chemicals, he said.
Costs savings have become especially crucial as a multi-year rout for prices depresses farm incomes and tightens margins. The Bloomberg Grains Spot Index is down more than 50 percent since its peak in 2012.
Meanwhile, advances in seed technology, fertilisers and other crop inputs has led to soaring yields and oversupply.
Producers are eager to find any edge possible at a time when the US-China trade war is disrupting the usual flow of agriculture exports.
Farmers need to get to the next level of profitability and efficiency in farming, and “we’ve lost sight of that with engineering that doesn’t match the agronomy,” said SwarmFarm’s CEO 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.
The Dot units won’t be completely on their own this year — farmers who bought equipment as part of a limited release are required to watch them at all times.
But after this trial run, the producers will be able to let the equipment run on its own starting next year. That will open up a lot of time for the growers who will no longer need to sit behind the steering wheel.
Farmers are always managing multiple tasks, said Leah Olson-Friesen, CEO of Dot.