Old and New Autonomous Technologies Collide on the Farm
From the arrival of self-driving robots tackling mundane tasks to the functionality upgrades giving outdated tractors a second life, ag tech companies are working to develop and deliver the solutions farmers really want.
Six representatives from top agricultural tech companies met at World FIRA 2021 to debate a new conundrum within the farming sector: of all the autonomous technologies available on the market, which ones are best for today’s producers? The aptly named roundtable discussion, “Robot vs. Tractor: which level of automation brings more value to farmers?” explored exactly that.
David Frabotta (Meister Media Worldwide, USA) led the discussion as moderator. The panel included experts from across the industry. Kent Brown (John Deere, USA), Andrew Sunderman (AGCO Corporation, USA), Praveen Penmetsa (Monarch Tractor, USA), Gary Thompson (GUSS, USA), Aymeric Barthes (Naïo Technologies, France) and James Miller (TAFE, India) shared insights about what they’re seeing in the market and how the latest technologies work to meet their customers’ needs. This hour-long discussion is summarized in the following abstract.
The Problems Autonomy is Addressing Now
To kick off the “Robot vs. Tractor” discussion, Frabotta asked the panelists to share a little bit about their companies and the innovations they were excited about right now. Their responses revealed important information about where the industry is headed based on the unique needs of the customers each company seeks to serve.
Miller spoke first. His perspective as a representative of Indian tractor manufacturer TAFE detailed the difference between the agriculture industry in India and other countries. One of the largest tractor markets in the world, India has a lot of smaller family farms. Small 20-horsepower tractors are becoming increasingly popular in a place where technologically advanced machines are cost-prohibitive to the majority of consumers.
Representing Naïo Technologies, Barthes shared how the company has continued to develop and offer a range of versatile robots, all of which have autonomous weeding capabilities. The focus on weeding across the product line has been essential due to the cost of labor and mechanical alternatives. Many farmers in France are also lessening or eliminating their reliance on herbicides, which makes the robots an increasingly attractive option.
GUSS’s Thompson noted how the company’s origin story centered on problem solving. From the very beginning, GUSS was the result of an ag company looking for a technological solution to its labor challenges. The company began as a spraying-as-a-service provider but struggled to find people to drive the machines.
When it became clear that a driverless tractor was a better option than continually trying to find people to spray all night and sleep all day in a nearby hotel room, GUSS built the machine it needed. Now, the company offers commercial spraying services for high-density orchards where one operator manages eight driverless sprayers at the same time.
Penmetsa at Monarch Tractor shared his belief in the tractor as an all-electric smart platform. He sees the tractor as a stepping stone to other autonomous technologies like robots because the old-school machinery is familiar to most farmers. It is an accessible starting point that saves on labor and diesel costs, while also minimizing the risk. An operator can oversee many tractors without the added challenge of learning the ins and outs of an entirely new machine.
Similarly, Sunderman says that AGCO is working to new deploy solutions that add value in existing markets. For example, the company has developed a system that enables a sprayer to change its application height based on the height of the crops as they grow throughout the season. This change gives customers a new level of control over their sprayers.
AGCO also has a new software solution that automates driving in the field. Even though the software launched in 2019, it can be added onto machines back to 2014. This is a huge benefit, as it gives the old machines a way to be updated and improved over time.
Although Brown at John Deere jokes that the company brought self-driving capabilities to the market “before it was cool,” it continues to release new features that add value. John Deere’s See & Spray technology is something the company is particularly excited about. Brown says that the technology is able to reduce inputs by 70 to 80 percent.
While the manufacturer is focused on helping customers manage their costs and labor concerns, it’s also working to assist with prioritization. There are always things that will get done and others that won’t, Brown explains. The autonomous technologies that will be most valuable are the ones that help farmers get the most important jobs done.
Diverse Autonomous Solutions will Continue to Coexist in the Marketplace
When it comes to determining which autonomous solutions are best for farmers, the panelists agree that it depends. They are of the mind that “more is more” and any solutions that provide value should remain in the marketplace. After all, the machines that benefit specialty crop farmers may not be a good fit for those growing commodity crops.
Sunderman notes that one of the most important aspects of introducing autonomous solutions to the market is ensuring that they’re easy to implement. If the technology can help farmers make better, faster decisions, they will maximize profit and reduce waste every time.
Machines that require a lot of startup time and effort negatively impact the customer value from the very beginning. Sunderman also maintains that a number of solutions will coexist simultaneously, from larger single and multiuse machines to smaller fleets of specialized robots. The industry needs all types of innovations to thrive.
Penmetsa says that autonomous solutions need to offer a wide range of benefits to be attractive to farmers. He gives the example of machines that not only improve crop yields but crop quality as well. Monarch helps with this process by making its tractors compatible with the implements that farmers are already using, making the transition as seamless as possible.
Penmetsa believes that automation that helps producers get ahead of the curve will help them earn more for their crops. This, Penmetsa says, is the sweet spot—one where the machine’s return on investment is so compelling that the transition to these technologies is all but guaranteed.
Another variable that companies must consider when developing autonomous solutions is the connectivity. In areas where tree canopies block cell signals, manufacturers need to get creative. Thompson says that GUSS has encountered these issues. As a result, the sprayers can move over to a private radio signal when cell connectivity becomes a challenge. This backup option ensures the signal never drops out while the operator is managing the machines.
Barthes adds that network connectivity is just one aspect of a larger concern. Namely, farmers want to be able to trust the robots and tools. This can mean everything from offering services that ensure the crops won’t be damaged by the machines to offering real-time video and management systems that allow operators to closely monitor what’s happening in the field and stop the machine instantly when something has gone awry.
While ensuring that the customer is the center point in conversations about what the industry needs, it remains important to consider cost and what a particular market can bear. In Miller’s experience, most Indian farmers cannot afford a lot of the bells and whistles that have become commonplace elsewhere.
One example Miller offers is on a kit that collects data and stores it in the cloud. For the domestic market in India, the cost is prohibitive. Finding inexpensive ways to offer these same technologies will be the key to increasing adoption.
Brown offers the insight that a cohesive ecosystem of solutions is the key to moving the industry forward and meeting everyone’s various needs. Just as John Deere will continue to exist as a major player in the agriculture sector, startups will continue to bring new products to the market. Brown believes it’s important for both types of companies to collaborate by building relationships and carving out space for solutions of every size, scale and price point.
Adoption Rates Depend on a Multitude of Sales and Service Models
The industry has always been price conscious. Ag tech companies have an opportunity to pursue new ways of getting their solutions in the fields of those who need them most. Just as the panelists saw room for all types of autonomous solutions, they also understand that farmers need various sales and service models to meet them where they’re at right now.
Thompson is finding that GUSS’s customers are particularly concerned about the return on investment with respect to automation. While these producers know what to expect when it comes to purchasing a traditional tractor, automated driverless spraying is a relatively new phenomenon. There is more concern about the payback period.
Thompson says the best way to mitigate those concerns is to show the work. Having an interface that shows operators exactly what’s being done is helpful in building trust because as Thompson puts it, “anything that could go wrong, will go wrong on a farm.”
When it comes to game-changing ROIs, Barthes adds that one operator per machine simply won’t do. The remote monitoring solutions that enable one operator to oversee many machines are going to be far more attractive. The cost of purchasing more than one machine, however, will be challenging for all but the largest farms. For this reason, Barthes notes that it’s important to have many ways to enter the market.
Naïo, for example, can offer the service model in France, where the company can more easily make repairs to the machines. This becomes harder when the company sells its machines in the US. Selling, renting and service models are all viable options that providers can explore, depending on how they operate. The most important thing, Barthes says, is to focus on the relationships. Customers should feel confident that the company will stand behind their solutions and ensure they work as advertised.
In India, Miller says that the rental model has been helpful in getting equipment in the hands of those who need it. Because most farmers cannot afford to buy the machinery, they can use TAFE’s J Farm Services app to connect to tractor and equipment owners. This helps to facilitate the rental process in a way that is fair, transparent and doesn’t require a large capital expenditure up front. It also allows producers who need a tractor for a short time to pay to use it only when they need it.
Penmetsa says that in the US, equipment lines of credit are a good option. While farmers of larger operations often benefit from better rates, small and family farms need to finance the equipment in order to access the same technologies. Penmetsa contends that companies have an opportunity to serve these customers by offering financing options or providing the machines as a service to help bridge the gap. Monarch has started working with the USDA and other agencies to create financing where it doesn’t exist. This is a way to help operations of all sizes manage the transition to clean and autonomous technologies.
Sunderman adds that focusing on outcomes can help entice customers adopt the latest technologies. Farmers tend to be more interested in the equipment if it can help realize the output they are looking to achieve. This is something Sunderman says all ag tech companies need to start talking about more. Farmers care about the logistics of what autonomous solutions can do. If the technology can accomplish even more than the human its replacing, customers are likely to change their perspective of what’s possible.
Brown agrees that education is a key component of increasing adoption rates. Not only do companies have a duty to foster greater understanding, he says, but they also have a responsibility to support and take care of their customers. These farmers are the people who are feeding the world, so when their profitability is impacted, it becomes a global problem. Autonomation is part of the solution. Brown believes it should be at the forefront of the conversation with customers and end consumers. There’s a lot at stake.
“Technology growth seems fast, but it will never be slower than it is today,” Brown says. “Our customers are advancing at the same pace. We simply can’t deliver them solutions that don’t consider the bottom line.”