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Farm Robots May Be More Common as Autonomy Hurdles Remain

By Joel Reichenberger

It was August 2021, and in a field outside of Decatur, Illinois, the future seemed at hand.

Raven Industries, at that point recently acquired by CNH Industrial, was showing off a Case IH tractor powered by the company's OmniDrive autonomous grain cart technology.

It buzzed up and down the field pulling alongside, then away from, a combine, and it did it without anyone in the cab.

It wasn't the first time that brand of autonomy had been demonstrated at a major farm machinery show, but this was different, because the technology was about to go from beta testing and controlled environments to real farms with real, paying customers.

Autonomy was coming to store shelves, even for that looming harvest.

Flash-forward to 2023, and Raven was again demonstrating technology outside of Decatur and, again, highlighting autonomous grain cart technology that was on the verge of going to market.

Only, this wasn't the purely driverless system of 2021 but one that would take over driving the tractor when it approached a combine, and an operator in the driver's seat gave the autonomous system the go-ahead.

It was autonomous assist rather than the truly autonomous version that had been shown two years prior.

What gives?

What gives is that autonomy isn't easy -- not the technology itself, not the hardware that makes it happen -- and it's certainly not easy getting it all in the field working comfortably with farmers.

"It's been a journey for us," explains Eric Shuman, vice president and general manager of Raven. "It's been a learning process, weighing out some of the acceptance from customers to take that extra step. It's been a little slower adoption journey than maybe we expected."

Raven and CNH Industrial are not alone. Some early attempts at autonomy have butted up against unexpected roadblocks, and some companies have even scaled back their ambitions, removing driverless autonomy from machines that initially had it.

Still, the tremendous potential of autonomy beckons from across the ag machinery landscape. Manufacturers ranging from the largest global-spanning corporations to the smallest startups are promising big things.

Ag seems to be on a precipice, but of what, exactly?

ROBOTS EVERYWHERE

There was nearly nothing but autonomy on display in September at the FIRA USA event, in Salinas, California. Dozens of robots cut up and down demonstration plots, designed specifically for the labor-intensive specialty crops that dominate in a place like California.

The innovation in those realms can make for an eye-popping display. Tevel, an Israeli company, for instance, has used California farm shows to demonstrate a fleet of fruit-harvesting aerial drones. Half a dozen launch tethered to a power-providing trailer, latch on to an apple, apply a small twist to separate it from the tree and return the fruit to a bin. It's apple-picking, albeit without the corn maze and hayrack ride.

"As it's picking it, we can tell you a massive amount of detail on every single piece of fruit," said Danielle Efargan Hager, a marketing and communications manager with Tevel. "We're not picking as fast as humans can yet, but because we have a continuous energy supply, we can harvest 24 hours a day. We're more efficient."

Efficiency is the goal, especially in areas where labor shortage is most acute and complicated.

Burro is a company that makes smaller robots not designed to take over an operation but just to help out. Versions can carry as much as 1,500 pounds and tow 5,000 pounds, hauling produce from harvesters to a collection point. Expansion packs can add mowing, scouting and even a guard dog function, patrolling a farm and alerting at the sight of an intruder.

Naio Technologies has developed four in-field autonomous robots, ranging from small tool and crop carriers to large weeding machines capable of straddling a row of grape vines to keep them clean. It had more than 400 robots in the field.

"We started looking at what tasks we can automate in agriculture to support farmers in painful and repetitive tasks," said Gaetan Severac, a co-founder.

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