Barriers to Scaling Automation in Agriculture

A Perspective from the OEM Industry
Author: Peter van der Vlugt

Leaving behind the initial peak of inflated expectations while following the well-known Gartner hype cycle into its corresponding disillusionment phase in the last decade(s), we now see many agricultural robots and autonomous equipment steadily approaching reality. In 2020, Future Farming magazine published its first field and harvest robot buyers’ guide. The catalog lists the autonomous robots – not autonomous tractors – that farmers worldwide can buy, lease, or rent to help them produce crops outdoors. For the 2023 guide, the magazine reports 60 listed robots and 73% more robots in operation worldwide, showing significant growth in quantities across all categories of agricultural robots. Compared to the first year of publication, the last three years have seen the number of operational robots grow by nearly tenfold. This trend is pushed by the fast development of technology, first introduced by startup companies, bringing competitive and affordable state-of-the-art technologies to farmers utilizing smart sensors, advanced software and AI algorithms, increased processing power, and smart actuators. Secondly, the agricultural robot trend is pushed by the global and pressing challenges we see today in agricultural production, like human labor availability and costs, aging farmers, climate change, legislations and restrictions, and many more.

However, the path to mass acceptance in the market remains a challenge. No matter how accessible new technologies like automation and autonomy become, they will only be adopted if they solve the farmer’s pain points and improve their business. Introducing complex autonomous equipment that does not resolve such problems and pain points will hardly be adopted by farmers as it will be too time-consuming and risky for their operation.

As my Kubota colleague Koji Hasegawa from our Silicon Valley office wrote in his 2022 THRIVE article, robots and autonomous equipment will additionally be far better at collecting data with smart sensors and algorithms to deliver added value to the business model for the farmer. So, it is not just about automating and finding a solution for, e.g., the decreasing human labor availability and quality; it is also about bringing this additional value to make the smart combination to solve the current pain points and improve the cost/income situation. All these new technologies can provide added value when they are interoperable, combining decision support systems and agronomy software to optimize the treatments, minimize the inputs, and create the best yield and quality. Of course, all this must be launched to the market in an easy-to-use way, as farmers neither have much time to set things up nor are they willing to work many hours from the office to make a mission plan. It must be simple, easy to use, and fast to set up.

From that perspective, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in our industry have quite a lot of experience, most of them with 100+ years. Startups bringing new solutions to the market at an ever-faster pace have, therefore, also triggered the approach to autonomy and robots inside the larger OEMs. Traditional equipment manufacturers like Kubota, CNH Industrial, Deere, AGCO, and even some implement manufacturers in Europe have not been sitting still with a recent display of their autonomous (tractor) robot concepts at major agricultural fairs, showing their industrial leadership. They have made a significant effort to develop their state-of-the-art vehicles into intelligent machines by gradually introducing smart sensors, increased automation, and data-collection sensor devices. By enhancing existing product models, the manufacturers have built further on already validated features of their tractors and implement equipment. This includes, for example, auto-steer capabilities, headland automation, and safety functions that make daily work safer, less tiring, and more efficient in the farmer’s operations. Also, so-called Tractor Implement Management (TIM) has entered the market, standardized between different brands; it allows a tractor to be controlled by a smart implement containing agreed commands like speeds, hitch, valves, PTO, etc. We can see the experience of the OEMs come into play here. With the consolidation in the market through acquisitions and ongoing strategic investments in startups, OEMs are rapidly establishing their global positions towards further automation and full autonomous equipment combinations.

To address the future needs for these increasingly demanding smart applications, the agriculture industry, through organizations like the International Organization for Standards (ISO), Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF), Global Organization for Agriculture Robotics (GOFAR/FIRA), RobAgri, and many more, are working and collaborating on new concepts and technologies to become standardized, paving the future path towards interoperability in the whole domain of digitalization, electrification, and autonomy in smart agriculture multi-brand eco-systems. The development of these standards and guidelines is a must to comply with upcoming legislations and regulations related to functional safety (e.g., the new EU Machinery Directive), cybersecurity (e.g., EU Cyber Resilience Act / CRA), and data policies (e.g., EU Data Act).

In North America, efforts are ongoing to create an environment where autonomy and robots can be entirely accepted and approved for commercial use, provided the manufacturers follow the necessary functional safety and security regulations and legislations. An active role is taken by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) to drive the ag industry towards acceptance and approval of legislation for advanced equipment, like that from Cal/OSHA. California’s regulations still restrict the full deployment of autonomous machines in farming operations. Together with ag industry players, AEM is advocating for a regulatory environment that will foster innovations towards full autonomy.

While startups may initially be much faster to market than the traditional players, they will run into challenges like global acceptance in the market by farmers, scaling up their production, the distribution network through dealerships, service of the equipment, interoperability, and compatibility in the farmer’s (digital) ecosystem, and all the safety and security regulations that will come upon the industry. Despite all these challenges, there is still a very good reason to keep investing in startups, helping, and supporting them from the industry perspective, and getting them on board the industrial platforms to address the challenges we have as an industry jointly. In the end, working together as an industry will give us the ability to better influence and lobby legislators along with delivering acceptable and interoperable solutions to farmers, giving them the benefits they need, increasing the adoption rate, and driving future standards.

About the Author
Peter Van
Peter van der Vlugt
Managing Director of Kubota’s Innovation Center for Europe (ICE)

Peter van der Vlugt is the General Manager of Kubota’s Innovation Center for Europe. He came from Kverneland Group Mechatronics where he was CTO and responsible for identifying and following up on technology trends in general and managed the Smart Farming Program for the whole Kverneland and Kubota group. Next to his career within the agricultural implements supplier, he is also involved in international standards, ag Industry working groups, patents, and international research and subsidy projects. Peter has also been chairman of the Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF) for 10 years from 2012 - 2022 while currently still the Kubota representative in AEF's steering committee.

Recent Articles

Translate »