Grains Research and Development

Date: 29.06.2015

Automation looms as the next technology jump

Author: Sarah Clarry

Image of an automated tractor

A glimpse of the future: a John Deere autonomous tractor.

Australian grain growers are ‘market ready’ for automated cropping technology, but barriers to adoption still exist

Australian grain growers are widely acknowledged by their overseas counterparts to be innovative and open to change. So anything that might provide a competitive edge, or a measure of certainty, is likely to pique curiosity. Nowhere has this been more obviously borne out than in the rapid adoption of autosteer.

However, the next generation of precision agriculture (PA) technology – variable-rate technology (VRT) – has not caught on so widely or quickly for several reasons, among them being the newness of the technology, perceived cost and complexity and, in some districts, a lack of soil variability in paddocks.

Graph showing adoptions to autosteer

Figure 1 Adoption of prevision agriculture practices over time.

That said, CSIRO’s Dr Rick Llewellyn believes that effectively targeted adoption strategies would improve overall uptake of VRT.

“There’s potential for accelerated adoption where there is variability that can be managed profitably and growers can receive advisory support for the technology and the information it generates,” Dr Llewellyn says.

“Australian grain growers are willing adopters of new technology [Figure 1] but the more successful innovations will be those that don’t add complexity and those that can help growers manage large areas with less management demands.”

Beyond VRT, proponents of increasing PA adoption are now looking one step further, to full automation.

Dr Rohan Rainbow, from Crop Protection Australia, is a consultant manager to the GRDC on automation and robotics.

Presenting at the University of Sydney Summer School on Agricultural Robotics earlier this year, Dr Rainbow pointed out how factors such as crop breeding, quality and yield traits, chemical and biological crop protection, GM crop science, and no-till, autosteer and controlled traffic have all delivered gains for growers over the past decade.

Yet with all this, productivity has plateaued in Australia. Could automation and associated safety systems break this? This leads to the question of whether, with an increase in automation technology, we need the driver in the tractor at all.

“Autosteer already has been fantastic for growers. It has made farming easier and the financial benefits are clear,” Dr Rainbow said.

Dr Llewellyn and his colleague Jackie Ouzman have recently completed a study of adoption of PA-related practices covering major Australian grain-growing regions.

Dr Llewellyn says that relative to the other innovations, autosteer is a simple innovation that is not information-intensive and not highly influenced by farm characteristics such as soil type.

However, on-farm labour remains an issue, Dr Rainbow says. Drivers can get bored, fatigue is a factor and finding skilled workers is still a challenge.

He says partial automation could solve the issues of boredom and fatigue, while continuing to address the shortage of skilled workers that plagues many primary producers.

“A system might exist where the driver could also operate other devices, such as automated chaser bins, or slave tractor systems where one driver operates two tractors,” he says.

Smarter logistics

However, automation is only half of the equation. Dr Rainbow says system optimisation needs to be a concurrent goal.

building in intelligent decision-making, the system lends itself to greater efficiencies, for example, segregation at harvest time, filling different chaser bins according to different protein levels.”

While many are excited at a future where they may spend less time on a tractor seat, Dr Rainbow understands that not everyone is enthusiastic about driverless tractors or automation generally.

“There is definitely a need to develop a social licence to operate,” he says. “There has to be community acceptance of autonomous technology. There are fears about automation: fears about safety and displacing people.”

Increased field surveillance using unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones) to reduce farm business risk and improve decision-making also has a way to go to garner community acceptance, he says.

Other issues that need to be addressed include having access to data management in the field, reliable broadband wireless coverage and insurance cover for unmanned vehicles.

Despite these obstacles, there appears no doubt the Australian industry is moving towards automation.

The GRDC is finalising an investment to support this, with priority for:

  • intelligent sensors (latest-generation sensing technology, some of which has been developed but is not yet ready for the grains industry);
  • intelligent decision support (making better decisions within the paddock and at the enterprise and business scale using complex data resources that can facilitate automated processes); and
  • intelligent infrastructure (whole-of-farm automation).

The project will be a multi-industry collaboration, in partnership with the Cotton Research and Development Corporation and with potential future collaborators from other industries.

The investment program will seek to:
  • deliver increased farmgate profitability;
  • increase measurable grower and adviser confidence in PA technologies, including autonomous and robotic systems;
  • increase timeliness of crop surveillance and repetitive operational practices;
  • partner with one or more machinery manufacturers to bring commercial-incubated autonomous systems to the Australian market;
  • inform and educate regulators and risk underwriters/insurance companies and the finance sector;
  • consider risk mitigation through development of automation and data standards; and
  • invest in the development of the ‘social licence’ for automation through understanding business risk, farm safety, and benefits for people and the environment.

More information:

Dr Rohan Rainbow

02 6282 2226
r.rainbow@cropprotectionaustralia.com

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Driverless tractors on the radar

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GRDC Project Code RAA00002

Region National