As the world slowly moves toward a reality where commuters share the road with self-driving cars, there’s been ample discussion about how and when full autonomy will reach the various business sectors. Agriculture is not exempt from this anticipation. Many startups and equipment manufacturers are working on solutions that incrementally move the needle closer to driverless tractors, unsupervised harvesters, and fully connected fleets.
For the moment, farmers remain cautiously optimistic. Eliminating the need to operate a tractor or complete other laborious jobs is undeniably attractive. What’s often more appealing right now, however, is investing in reliable technologies that solve the problems producers face every day. Ag robotics and technology companies are tasked with delivering results.
The “How Major Manufacturers are Introducing Autonomy” roundtable at the FIRA Open Day 2021 event explored this topic in depth. Meister Media’s David Frabotta moderated the discussion with Brett McClelland, Product Manager - Precision Agriculture at CNH Industrial, Andrew Sunderman, Senior Manager, Global Farming Solutions for AGCO Corporation, and Kent Brown, Senior Product Manager - Harvesting Automation for John Deere. All three panelists discussed how these historic manufacturing companies approach customer research, product development, and the road to autonomous solutions.
Developing customizable solutions for autonomous operations
“You have to understand the customer’s business and know how your company is uniquely positioned to solve those problems,” says McClelland. “Our customers come to us looking for productivity solutions that will make them more efficient. A lot of the solutions we’re looking at right now are about making the equipment smarter.”
This focus on efficiency, McClelland says, is why a fully autonomous operation has the potential to be game changing for the industry. It will free up a lot of additional time. Because equipment and technology companies need to do more work before bringing these robust innovations to market, many choose to focus on developing solutions that improve things now, while also moving farmers incrementally closer to that high-level goal.
One reason for this is that not every operation is ready for full autonomy. Each farm has unique needs that require different technologies and considerations. Thankfully, producers aren’t shy about conveying those needs to their suppliers. Companies are taking this feedback in stride and creating customizable solutions.
“We give the customer options, so they can really customize the machine to their tasks and their operation,” says Sunderman. “I think that’s important because it enables the customer to upgrade the machine throughout the lifecycle of their ownership with the product. That way, as we grow in our technology and they grow in their enterprise, they can add these value-adding technologies to meet their ever-changing farming practices and growing needs.”
Farmers are tech-savvy... if it brings value
Another essential reason for startups and equipment manufacturers to build adaptability into their solutions is that farmers’ expectations shift, too. New priorities reveal themselves over time.
“We're really starting to see less focus on some of the traditional features of a machine, such as what’s the horsepower? What’s the tire size?” Sunderman says. “Instead, customers are asking about outcomes or saying that they’re looking for a machine or implement or tool to do certain things. They want to know if this solution will provide a specific outcome better than what’s already being done to increase yield and reduce waste. Those are the features I think we'll continue to see having the highest adoption, as ultimately, the customer won’t consider a machine without them.”
It all comes back to providing value. If a machine yields it, farmers will learn to operate it. The perception of old-school ag professionals who bristle at innovation is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
“Farmers are brilliant, and farmers are tech-savvy,” says Brown. “They're hungry for this technology. But when we look at cutting-edge technology, we also shouldn't expect to have a hundred percent of the customer base adopt it. A farmer’s margins can vary greatly, and they want to make sure the automation features can bring them value.”
The right balance between autonomation and full autonomy
If there is a primary obstacle along the ag industry’s path to full automation, it centers on cost. Brown says that the rush to standardization often creates a burden for profit-conscious operations. The value new technologies provide can be undercut by a hefty price tag. It’s a complex situation—one that many companies are using as an opportunity to deepen their commitment to their customers by meeting them where they’re at.
“Our customers are ready for many different levels of technology, but I think it’s important to match what we’re doing today with what we have planned for the future,” Sunderman says. “Whether we’re talking about automation or full autonomy, it’s technology that comes at a very high cost compared to what’s being used on a farming operation today.
“That’s where we need to really pinpoint those developments and work with our customers to figure out their main challenges, the things that keep them up at night,” he continues. “We need to solve those problems first because those are the ones where the cost of this very advanced technology will provide a measurable benefit to them.”