Future machinery: ‘Boldly going where no man has gone before'

Bismarck Farm & Ranch Guide
Future machinery: ‘Boldly going where no
man has gone before'
By GENE LUCHT, For Farm & Ranch Guide
The creators of Star Trek never wrote about agriculture in the 21st century but if
they did, their vision might have included robotic tractors without drivers.
It could happen yet.
Still, when most agricultural engineers talk about the changes they see coming in
farm machinery, they are not talking about a lot of whiz-bang, Star Trek style
jumps into warp speed.
“The thing to me is that the changes in this field tend to be evolutionary, rather
than revolutionary,” explains Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension ag
That view is echoed by Barry Nelson, public relations manager for Deere & Co.'s
ag division.
Some of what farmers will see 20 years from now is technology that has been
developed but which isn't affordable or useful enough to buy yet.
But, it will be.
In a business where 50-year-old Farmall Super M's and 30-year-old 4020s are
still being used, any technology changes tend to be of degree and affordability,
Nelson stresses.
“You're still going to be seeing planters going across the field in the spring and
combines go across the field in the fall,” Nelson says.
However, he says those planters and combines, as well as the tractors and other
machinery used for various field trips, likely will use precision equipment. This will
enable farmers to follow the same wheel tracks, which will reduce compaction.
There are a variety of reasons for that probability, explains Hanna.
First, as average farms grow, fewer farmers will be as familiar with the layout and
weed problems and other factors in individual fields. That could make yield
monitors and various sensors more important.
Second, with that same trend toward larger farms there will be a need for hired
labor. Using guidance systems could make the quality of hired help less
important, thus reducing labor costs.
Through such technology, a farmer could look at his computer screen in the
office and see exactly where each machine is and what it is doing. He could
better know if there is a problem.
Those moves also eventually could lead to some of the variable-rate application
technologies that many experts trumpeted years ago.
The idea of variable-rate seed or chemical or fertilizer applications has been a
holy grail for ag technology experts, Hanna says, but it eventually could get here.
The key is to hold down costs.
“The things that have been accepted in recent years have been the ones that cut
costs for producers,” Nelson says. “That will continue to be a trend.”
But, there are numerous hurdles facing the idea of robotic, unmanned tractors.
Although guidance systems can take the machine across a field in a straight line,
they can't affordably and reliably see if the disk is plugging up or if an animal or
person runs in front or if a waterway washed out in a recent rainstorm.
Until those types of situations can be addressed through technology, the idea of
fully automated machines will face severe hurdles.
Still, Hanna raises another point. He says technology could lead to smaller
machinery at some point.
There are several reasons for that possibility, he says.
First, if machines become automated, labor ceases to be a factor and smaller
machines might become more financially feasible.
Next, as farmers look at the need for more identity-preserved crops, the idea of
having two small planters instead of one large unit or two small combines instead
of one large one could make more sense.
Finally, there is another possible long-term change on the way for farm
machinery. With the advent of a booming ethanol industry and the search for
other sources of biofuels, it is possible farmers could begin harvesting more
This could mean:
- combines that harvest the cornstalk as well as the ear;
- separate biomass harvestors; and
- changes in tillage equipment to better facilitate biomass harvests.
“We know we can use that biomass to make ethanol or other products,” Hanna
says. “We just have to develop the technology to do it in an affordable manner.”