In the upcoming “Robot vs. Tractor: which level of automation brings more value to farmers?” roundtable at World FIRA 2021, five major manufacturers will meet to discuss their customers, their needs and the push to increase profitability across the industry. The panel will include Kent Brown (John Deere), Andrew Sunderman (AGCO Corporation), Praveen Penmetsa (Monarch Tractor), Gary Thompson (GUSS) and Aymeric Barthes (Naïo Technologies).
Moderator David Frabotta, editorial market development director at Meister Media Worldwide, sees this roundtable as an opportunity for the panelists to share their unique perspectives while also giving attendees an insider’s look at how these perspectives drive the strategic planning and development of new equipment, all while enticing farmers to adopt them. In the debate between robot versus tractor, Frabotta expects the panelists to bring a lot of nuance to a complex discussion.
“Agriculture is obviously very localized and specific to a production system,” he says. “Autonomy means different functionality for different farmers. It varies based on a number of variables that farmers are evaluating in order to get the best return on their investment.”
“Autonomy is very much farm-based, need-based and ROI-based, and there are other factors such as regulatory or labor issues that could impact what might make sense for an autonomous function,” Frabotta continues. “Manufacturers are working to leverage what farmers need, before developing the functionality to automate those particular tasks. During the roundtable, what I think we'll focus on most is this question: ‘As a manufacturer, what are your clients telling you that they need or want?’”
This question plays into another. After manufacturing companies develop the machinery that farmers actually want, how long will it take for growers and producers to use them? History has shown that few agriculture professionals are keen to be on the bleeding edge of implementing new technologies. Frabotta gives the example of autosteer.
“Autosteer is just one simple GPS-guided steering mechanism that likely saves farmers a lot of time now that it’s standardized,” he says. “But before it was standardized on machines, it had a very low adoption rate, and I see the same scenario playing out with new technologies that are being adopted. The next generation of technologies are still hitting that wall. The farmers aren’t really sure that they want them or need them or that they can perform better than a human.”
Still, there are plenty of opportunities to improve equipment, streamline processes and alleviate the pressures farmers around the world are experiencing due to labor shortages, price increases and production issues. For manufacturers, this often means automating a single specific job.
“I think task-based robotics are the biggest potential for broad-based adoption and commercialization, and the GUSS sprayers a good example,” Frabotta says. “There are millions of tractor sprayers out there that have some degree of autonomy to them, but because the tractor is a multi-implement machine, there has it been a lot of opportunity to incorporate every single thing that machine does into an autonomous system.”
“What robots do very well is one thing,” he continues. “That could be weeding, spraying and so on. Once you get outside of that one thing, then you get into automation of tasks, an example being the speed and height of the fan blade on harvesters. Farmers said, ‘Yeah, I don't want to think about that. If we can automate that, that would help me out a lot.’ The machine is completing many tasks, some of them at the same time. Some of those things are still best controlled by an operator, and some of those things are better and more efficient if we can automate some of those decisions so the operator can focus on other things.”
Overall, Frabotta thinks the discussion will always come back to what farmers are asking for, what they want in order to make their lives a bit easier and what they can afford. That might mean new autonomous machinery, retrofit kits for tractors or do-it-for-you services that require a smaller financial investment. It’s all up for discussion. As for whether robots or tractors are more likely to come out on top, Frabotta has some thoughts.
“We have a lot of great experts on this panel, who are going to offer their perspectives,” he says. “We have established companies represented on this panel, as well as innovators that have been successful in commercializing new machines, which has been a stumbling block for a lot of startups in this space. So, everyone on this panel is going to have a very good understanding of their customer base and what their clients are asking for. And ultimately, that’s not a level-five autonomous robot—it's more functionality into the machines farmers already have.”
Those interested in attending “Robot vs. Tractor: which level of automation brings more value to farmers?" should mark their calendars for Wednesday, December 8, 2021, from 6:15 pm.
This roundtable discussion will be a part of the World FIRA 2021 event that runs from December 7-9, 2021.