Tuesday, May 24

Autonomous tractors and robots land on farms

Unmanned vehicles for plowing large areas or weeding vegetable fields: the venerable American tractor manufacturer John Deere and the French agricultural robot start-up Naïo have chosen the tech show in Las Vegas to present their novelties.

For farmers who must juggle labor shortages, climate change and environmental protection, while feeding a growing global population, builders are developing a new generation of autonomous machines.

In the latest machine from John Deere, which combines its popular 8R tractor, a plow, GPS and new technologies, no need to be in the cab or even in the field: the farmer can control everything from his smartphone .

Once the machine is driven into the field, the farmer simply needs to walk around it to make sure everything is in place and can start it with the touch of his phone. Equipped with twelve cameras and artificial intelligence capabilities, the machine stops automatically as soon as it perceives an obstacle and sends a signal.

It will be available in North America from this year, assures AFP the technological director of the company, Jahmy Hindman, shortly after the presentation of the tractor at CES, the annual electronics show which opened on Wednesday in the American gambling capital.

Versions for spreading fertilizer or sowing will come later; for the harvests, on the other hand, it is still a little complicated. Prices have not been specified.

For almost 20 years, farmers have used steering assistance functions thanks to GPS, to make lines straighter than a human, for example.

“Our customers are probably more prepared for self-reliance in agriculture than elsewhere because they have used very sophisticated automation systems for a long time,” says Mr. Hindman.

The other major tractor manufacturers are also working on similar machines. The American New Holland had presented a concept in 2016 while the Japanese Kubota unveiled in 2020 a prototype completely eliminating the cabin.

– Repetitive tasks –

Farmers are used to automating their tasks, whether it’s increasingly complex tractors or mechanical milking of cows. Machines generally improve their productivity while freeing them from repetitive and physically demanding tasks.

It was after discussing the problems of the lack of manpower with farmers that the French Gaëtan Séverac and Aymeric Barthes launched Naïo in 2011.

They also realized that mechanical robots, guided by centimeter-accurate GPS devices, could limit the use of chemicals.

In Las Vegas, they came to present the Americans with Ted, a robot that can “step over” the vines to weed the ground and turn around on its own at the end of the plot.

They also have a little “farm assistant” called Oz who can hoe, weed, or furrow, as well as a dedicated row crop weeding robot, Dino.

All are equipped with sensors, lasers, cameras or probes, allowing the robot to understand its environment. They can also collect data useful to the operator.

“The farmers are basically rather curious and interested but for two or three years, they no longer consider us as a gadget for the future”, remarks Gaëtan Séverac to AFP.

For him, the use of autonomous machines will first gain ground in specialized crops, with very high added value per hectare and requiring the most work, such as vegetables or vines, then in large cereal crops. .

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, drones and even satellites are part of this movement.

The agricultural sector thus accounts for a quarter of the revenues of the satellite imagery company Planet Labs.

“We can assess the level of chlorophyll (in plants) thanks to the sensors that we use to take images” from space, explains to AFP one of its co-founders, Robbie Schingler. “This allows you to determine the health of a crop” and possibly to add water or fertilizers.

For Barrett Hill, 36, a poultry farmer in Illinois, these new technologies are not surprising.

“The addition of computers and tools of this kind makes us more efficient”, he says, mentioning the centralized management of ventilation in his henhouses or a system that avoids, in the fields, sowing twice in the field. same place.

Tractors without a driver, however, it is not yet certain whether this is for his family farm. “I think it must be very expensive,” he said. “And I want to be in the fields.”


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