19 May, 2022

Agriculture: leader in autonomous mobility?

26 September, 2017

Robots are becoming uncaged, mobile, collaborative and increasingly intelligent and dexterous, moving beyond their traditional strongholds to bring automation to previously inaccessible tasks. Agriculture is also no exception and is being quietly transformed by this rising new robotics. In this article, IDTechEx considers the evolution and the long-term impact of autonomous mobility in farm vehicles.

In IDTechEx’s report, ‘Agricultural Robots and Drones 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets, Players’, more details are provided on how progress and innovation in robotics is changing agriculture. The report provides granular 10-year segmented market forecasts for 14 categories; assess all the key technological components; and includes more than 20 interview-based full company profiles with detailed SWOT analysis. Also included are 40 company profiles without SWOT analysis and summarised coverage of the works of more than 80 companies/research groups.

Evolution towards full navigational autonomy

Agriculture is the leading adopter of autonomous driving technology despite all the hype around driverless cars. Real time kinematic GPS (RTK-GPS) forms the backbone of this outdoor navigational technology with its centimetre level positional accuracy. Here, first came tractor guidance, helping drivers drive more accurately and relieving some of the pressure of maintaining driving accuracy. Next came autosteer, giving the operator the ability to programme a map into the tractor and let it navigate autonomously.

In agriculture, more than 210k RTK GPS receivers were sold last year. IDTechEx projects that this number will rise to 335 thousand by 2023. Autosteer will be the fast-growing use case while other cases such as variable rate equipment will also see accelerated growth. This trend will be boosted as receiver prices continue to fall. The receiver technology is becoming increasingly commoditised. The uptake will also be helped by increased uptake in precision agriculture practices. The full ecosystem is finally coming together with more reliable variable rate equipment such as seeders and sprayers. IDTechEx projects that some 330 thousand VRT equipment will be sold in 2023, up from a mere 40 k or so in 2015.

Technology is now evolving towards full autonomy. Master-and-slave (or follow-me) systems are being trialled, enabling one driver to guide a fleet, thus boosting the driver’s productivity. Next will come manned yet fully autonomous tractors (level 5). This has already been technologically demonstrated. Here, the vehicle’s sensing suite has to be expanded to enable it to avoid collision and operate even when the GPS signal is lost.

The next stage will potentially be unmanned autonomous tractors. In fact, this year, we saw the first public demonstrators for such vehicles. Currently, however, the farmers want to stay in charge, thus the cab is likely to be kept in the design. In the long term, however, the meaning of staying in charge will change, transiting from driving the vehicle to, for example, remote fleet operation/management.

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