Autonomous Machines: advances and challenges on the way to the farm of the future

By Bernardo de Castro, president of Hexagon's Agriculture division


21 December 2021

A machine that follows a determined route and makes precise decisions considering the best conditions for productivity in the field — all of this alone, based on cameras, sensors and GPS, without the need for an operator. This is the proposal of autonomous machines, vehicles that generate brightness in the eyes of agricultural managers who seek more efficiency and economy for their productions.

It is no wonder that the trend of adopting autonomous tractors and harvesters in the coming years is encouraging manufacturers around the world to invest in research and development to take advantage of the opportunities in this market, which, according to the North American consultancy Fact.MR, should grow at a rate of 10% per year by 2031.

However, despite the increasing investments and debates on the subject, the truth is that, for now, autonomous equipment is much more present in the social imagination than in the reality of rural areas.

Ideas, prototypes and tests still prevail

Currently, there are two major approaches to autonomous vehicles. The first is focused on a completely new machine, specifically redesigned to have autonomy; the second, in turn, seeks to equip and adapt existing equipment so that they become semi or fully autonomous. The two perspectives, however, have in common the fact that they are in the early stages of business.

Prototypes of autonomous machines with innovative concepts have already been presented to the public at several events over the last few years. However, we still do not have these concepts mature enough as products to see them in the field, on a commercial and operational scale.

The other version, focused on adapting existing equipment, has also evolved a lot, but is still restricted to more specific applications and implementations in small-scale and/or supervised environments. The great expectation is that this approach follows the steps of products that have already become popular and essential in agricultural operations, such as automatic pilots and flow controllers.

Solutions such as these are, in reality, the first steps towards the autonomy of vehicles in the field. We have already worked on evolutions of these products, which promote the gain of efficiency of the machines through the automatic regulation of operating parameters. For example, based on conditions of the work environment, previously recorded and analysed operations, characteristics of the machine and even the cultivation and the soil in question, among others, the system may recommend optimal parameterisations of the machine, without leaving this complex decision under the responsibility of the operator. In a second moment, such parameterisations may be imposed on the machine; that is, the tractor will self-regulate without human interference, always seeking increased performance and energy efficiency (fuel economy).

Upcoming challenges

Comparisons and debates about the adoption of autonomous vehicles in agricultural and urban environments are common. Although we find in agricultural areas scenarios with less exposure to risks — that is, spaces that can be better controlled, little movement of people and less obstacles — there are extra difficulties. Agricultural machines, unlike a truck or an automobile, always perform additional operations, not just for the purpose of moving from one point to another. That is, a tractor is always driving a sprayer, a fertiliser, a planter... equipment that has by itself demands for automation and autonomy most of the time complex.

Today, more than the autonomy of vehicles, we have the vision and work to develop the autonomy of processes. Machines are part of the resources that need to go through the evolution discussed on the path of their autonomy. However, they are not the only ones: the synchronisation of the other elements of the fleet, the logistics strategies and tools and the medium and long-term planning that will allow an efficient autonomy of the processes and greater gains in efficiency for the producer..

There are still obstacles to be overcome. In agricultural areas in general, we know that connectivity is a major bottleneck. The adoption of autonomous vehicles will also undergo necessary restrictions of legislation, in addition to all technologies to ensure absolutely reliable levels of safety. We believe that we are on the right path and that this future will arrive faster than one imagines. Step by step, gradually, following the example of the evolution of the technologies mentioned here, we will continue in the successful mission of making agricultural production increasingly efficient through the autonomy of machines and processes.