CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — 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 specialized 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 start-ups and more established ag equipment manufacturers.
In Ames, Iowa, Smart Ag is recruiting growers for a fall pilot program for AutoCart, a software platform through which farmers autonomously can operate a grain cart tractor from the combine cab.
The driverless technology uses AI machine learning to perceive obstacles in the cart’s path and comes with a navigation system that lets it chart a route to a pre-programmed point in the field.
Colin Hurd, founder and CEO of Smart Ag, said he expects AutoCart will be fully launched in early 2020, with a projected cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
Hurd said not every farm might be interested in using AutoCart specifically for their operations, but autonomous machines in general likely will see broader use in the future.
"You can run longer hours, operate equipment more efficiently and — if you’re a very large farm — it gives you oversight you don’t necessarily have today," Hurd said.
Cutting a wider swath
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said current advances in autonomous farm equipment are a "good indicator" that the technology will become more widespread moving forward, though not ubiquitous.
"This is not technology that will be adopted by everyone," he said. "It will have to make sense in their operation."
Naig said automation could cut a wider swath across agriculture production than just crops and branch into other areas including livestock, food processing and production.
Sam Funk, director of agriculture analytics and research with the Iowa Farm Bureau, said farmers might not immediately start using autonomous equipment unless they have a clear idea of the payoff.
"It’s very difficult to think about making that type of investment unless there’s a return that’s almost immediate because it’s a financial challenge and they’re trying to manage their way through this challenging time," he said.
A technical understanding of autonomous equipment could become important for the next generation of farmworkers, Funk said, though he does not believe the machines will replace the people in the fields.
"Just because a tractor might be able to go into a field and drive itself ... it still needs to get there somehow," he said.
On the job
Other start-ups are making headways in Canada and Australia.
While industry leaders Moline, Ill.-based Deere and Co. and CNH Industrial, headquartered in London, haven’t said when they’ll release similar offerings, Saskatchewan’s Dot Technology already has sold some so-called power platforms for fully mechanized spring planting.
In Australia, SwarmFarm Robotics is leasing weed-killing robots that also can do tasks such as mow and spread chemicals.
The companies say their machines are smaller and smarter than the gigantic ones 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.