Electrification and autonomous technology have reached the meadows with driverless tractors and combined harvesters coming off the horizon and onto the landscape
Smart, electric and autonomous aren’t words that have been traditionally associated with agricultural technology even though the industry has moved forward in other areas of technology in the last couple of decades.
However, farmers today are facing numerous challenges including labour shortages, the effects of climate change, safety concerns, increased customer scrutiny for sustainability and tighter government regulations.
To address these challenges, advancements in the automotive industry have crossed over and found applications on the world’s farms to improve yields, productivity and the environment. Two significant advancements have been in “smart” electrification and in autonomy.
Sustainable Intelligent Farming
One agricultural machinery manufacturer, Monarch Tractor, is now combining electrification, automation, machine learning and data analysis into its machinery to enhance farmer’s existing operations, increase productivity and safety as well as maximising yields to cut overhead costs and emissions.
The result is the Monarch Tractor, a fully electric, driver optional, smart tractor integrated on a single platform.
According to Monarch, traditional diesel tractors produce roughly 14 times the emissions as the average car. The Monarch Tractor is 100 percent electric and has zero tailpipe emissions. It also serves as a 3-in-1 electrification tool operating not only as a tractor, but with extra storage acts as an All-Terrain-Vehicle and has the capabilities to perform as a powerful generator in the field.
To serve the needs of autonomous farming, the model can operate with or without a driver. It uses the latest autonomous hardware and software technology to provide driver-assist and driver-optional operations. It can perform pre-programmed tasks without a driver or an operator can use Monarch’s interactive automation features including Gesture and Shadow modes to have the tractor follow a worker on the job.
Safety is an ongoing priority in working farms and the Monarch Tractor has important safety features including roll and collision prevention, vision-based Power Take Off (PTO) safety and 360° cameras to keep operations running smoothly and employees safe.
According to Carlo Mondavi, chief farming officer, Monarch Tractor, the tractor is moving farming toward a safer and sustainable future by eliminating harmful emissions, reducing the need for herbicides and keeping workers out of harm’s way with its driver-optional capabilities.
“As a fourth-generation farmer, I’ve seen firsthand the hazards that farming presents not just to workers, but to the environment as well,” he says.
One characteristic of the Monarch is its deep learning & sensing capabilities. The tractor collects and analyses over 240GB of crop data every day whilst operating in the field. Sensors and imaging are processed to provide critical data points that can be used for real-time adjustments as well as long term yield estimates, current growth stages and other plant/crop health metrics.
Using machine learning, the Monarch Tractor is able to digest this data and provide long-term analysis of field health, improving accuracy the longer it runs. Additionally, the data collected is securely stored in a Monarch cloud.
Users can receive tractor alerts, updates on current micro-weather conditions, detailed operations reports, data collection, analysis and storage for more efficient farm planning via a smartphone or personal device.
“Monarch Tractor is ushering in the digital transformation of farming with unprecedented intelligence, technology and safety features,” said Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder & CEO, Monarch Tractor. “We have assembled a world-class team of farmers, engineers and scientists to meet today’s farming demands and are empowering farmers by giving them intelligent tools to collect more predictive data to implement sustainable practices, better share their story and make more money. Hundreds of farmers have signed on to receive a Monarch Tractor and we look forward to delivering a new level of sustainability and efficiency to their existing farm operations.”
According to Hopville Farms owner, Jim Hoffmann, the Monarch Tractor’s autonomous features take it from just an environmental sustainability idea to a really higher productivity implement.
“There are a lot of ‘must do’ things on the farm that you would like to see done autonomously and not dedicating people to having them do… this tractor can do it more efficiently.”
Remote Control Keeps Operations In Synch
Another innovation in the agricultural machinery industry is the use of autonomy to synchronise the operations of adjacent equipment that need to operate in harmony together as one unit. An example of this is the combined harvester and load trailer combination.
Sioux Falls agricultural technology company, Raven Industries, has released the so-called “AutoCart” as part of its Raven Autonomy portfolio of farm equipment. The AutoCart is an autonomous grain cart (trailer) that has been developed rapidly and will be available for use in the 2021 harvest season. Whilst not a fully autonomous example, the AutoCart nonetheless combines a number of key technologies including autonomy, remote control and equipment automation. The company describes it as bridging the gap between human-operated and fully-autonomous platforms.
AutoCart enables farmers to set out a field plan, stage locations, adjust speeds, monitor location activity and command the tractor pulling a grain trailer to synchronise with the combined harvester as it offloads on the go. The driverless tractor can then be returned to a predetermined unloading area.
According to Brian Meyer, Vice President of Raven Applied Technology, the company set out to solve the main challenges being faced by farmers and Driverless Agricultural Technology is an incredible advancement that gives the farmer time back and improves the efficiency of the harvest.
“Harvesting is exhausting, and anyone who works on a farm knows the feeling of being short of staff while trying to beat the weather and bring in their crop at the point that it will yield the maximum economic value. AutoCart has been designed to ease the stress of harvesting and allow farmers to improve their profitability.”
AutoCart provides the farmer with the ability to monitor and operate a driverless tractor from the cab of the combined harvester. A single grain hauling tractor driver can cover 340 hours in the tractor cab during the harvest. By incorporating an autonomous grain cart tractor into their operation, the farmer can use those hours to complete other maintenance and tillage tasks that usually occur in the harvesting season and improve their bottom-line efficiency.
Through sub-inch accuracy in steering and guidance with RS1 and VSN Visual Guidance and complete visibility into machines and operations with Slingshot, Raven has been developing the path to autonomy in agriculture for years. With these innovations in software and control, Raven Autonomy is changing the agricultural technology landscape, helping farmers to be safer, be more efficient and ultimately run their operation with less reliance on human variables.
According to Sarah Waltner, General Manager of Raven Applied Technology, Raven Autonomy has made great strides in achieving agricultural autonomous operations.
“Raven currently has two autonomous products being used in operations today, offering driverless spraying, seeding, spreading and grain cart functions,” she concludes.