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New Automated Tractors May Save Agriculture in Time of Labor Shortages

Automated tractors
John Deere, the American farming equipment giant, is introducing completely automated tractors in its drive to further  modernize farming methods. Credit: Bookipedia2001 /CC BY-SA 4.0

John Deere’s new automated tractors, which are controlled remotely, will further revolutionize agriculture by removing the human element at a time when the labor supply is dwindling.

Officials from the American agricultural giant said on Tuesday that their company will begin commercial delivery of technology that enables a tractor to till a field without an operator in the cab in 2022.

This is a breakthrough for the top North American tractor manufacturer, after offering many years of increasingly complex automations in farm machinery that take the place of the backbreaking work that farmers once performed.

Automated tractors will enable 24-hour-per day agricultural operations

Minnesota farmer Doug Nims, who appears in John Deere’s new promotional video for the automated tractor, says he is sold on the new system. A fourth-generation farmer, he raises 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

“I really never thought I would see an autonomous tractor in my farming career,” he admitted, before explaining that all it took to get the tractor to till the land when he tried it out was a swipe on his phone. “It can do the tillage just as well as I can do it myself, just by using an app!”

He notes that farmers like him can “See how much of a field is left to till… if something needs to be removed, the app will tell you,” he says.

“We will be able to put a tractor out in the field and it will run all day, because it isn’t manned,” explains Nims.

And that’s the crux of the situation — with fewer and fewer people in the US unable or unwilling to work agricultural jobs, which have long hours but are not year-round, this kind of automation will be a godsend for farmers.

“Now we’ll be doing the jobs we always wanted to get done”

“It also helps us with the weather because we can run so hard when the conditions are good,” Nims explains, adding “It will allow me to run my business better because I can pay closer attention to other tasks. Now, we’ll be doing the jobs that we always wanted to get done, but never had time to, because we were in the cab all the time.”

Referring to other farmers who may be wary of the new automatic machinery, Nims states “I think once they try it, they will be very accepting of it.”

Deere expects to deliver systems for 12 to 20 machines this year, and then scale up, Jahmy Hindman, Deere’s chief technology officer, stated in an interview with Reuters. At this point, Deere has not decided whether they should sell the technology, lease it or even offer it to farmers as part of a subscription package that could enable them to upgrade it as time goes on and refinements are made.

Hindman explained that the cameras and computers needed for the automated tilling can be installed on an already-existing existing tractor and tiller machine in one day.

Caterpillar and other equipment manufacturers like Deere have for some time been investing in technology that allows for the automation of off-highway vehicles, especially mining vehicles and machines.

So this is a huge step forward for the agricultural industry as a whole in its two-decade long push toward automatization. First, things like satellite positioning systems enabled farmers to orient themselves and place their crops in perfectly-aligned rows.

There already was some hands-free automation within the cab of a tractor, but this is a different realm entirely, with Deere trying out the completely automated system for three to four years, according to Hindman.

Cameras must be monitored for efficiency, safety

Although there are few of the safety hazards involved in driverless systems that are in street vehicles, self-driving tractors still must be able to navigate correctly while avoiding obstacles like the occasional tree or rock while controlling equipment, including tillers.

The first generation of Deere’s automated tractors will use two coordinated cameras in the front and rear, sending images of what the cameras see via a smartphone app to the farmer. All the operator has to do is take the tractor to a field, swipe his or her smartphone screen and the machine will begin its path, according to a program.

The tillers and other specialized equipment that are used in farming will be monitored by a tractor’s computerized vision system, which includes mirrors installed along the shanks of the tiller which will keep an eye on what is happening on the ground. If one of the shanks hits a rock and flips upward, the change in the reflection in the mirror will be visible to the person who is monitoring the tilling remotely.

Considering the endemic problems in finding labor and the inherent dangers in much of agricultural work, Deere is devoting its full energies into automating additional farm operations as well. Hindman says that the next likely area that will be automated is the spraying of fields.

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