Within the next decade, farming as we know it is expected to be revolutionized by the use of self-driving tractors and robots that can perform time-consuming tasks now done by humans.
Sales of major farm machinery have been in a continued slump amid weak prices for key crops such as corn and soybeans, but the ever-present need to control farm costs and increase output will eventually drive farmers to adopt autonomous technologies.
"They (farmers) are a pretty cautious bunch, which is understandable," said Kraig Schulz, co-founder and CEO of Autonomous Tractor Corp., a small private company based in Minnesota that is developing AutoDrive technology for tractors. Its technology is aimed at turning existing tractors into semi-autonomous machines.
Experts say the first wave of autonomous tech in ag will go primarily to higher-value crops, such as tree nuts, vineyards and fresh produce. Also, some suggest that the big tractors could be replaced with self-propelled autonomous implements, such as sprayers in row crops, orchards and vineyards or with other robotic equipment for other specific tasks on the farm.
All told, Goldman Sachs predicts farm technologies could become a $240 billion market opportunity for ag suppliers, with smaller driverless tractors a $45 billion market on its own. Tens of billions could be spent on advanced tech for major farm uses such as precision fertilizer, planting, spraying and irrigation, Goldman predicts.
Rising costs for farm labor and falling costs for self-driving technology also will provide further catalysts for the shift.
On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill giving farm workers in the state — the nation's largest agricultural producer — historic overtime pay.
"This is going to have a serious effect on farming out in California," said Schulz, who expects rising labor costs to be an opportunity for autonomous and even semi-autonomous equipment to replace some of the human labor needed in farming.
"Rising labor costs would certainly be a positive for adoption of automated processes," said Jerry Revich, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.
Self-driving tech prices falling
At the same time, the progress in self-driving technology for automobiles — including both object detection capabilities using multicamera systems, radar and lidar technology — could help speed up and lower the cost of developing autonomous farm machinery.
"Some of the new sensors that help you autonomously park your car, parallel park, backup sensors, cameras and things like that — all that stuff — the cost has come way down on it and it's allowed us to leverage it more in our machines," said Matt Rushing, a vice president in charge of precision ag and advanced technology for AGCO.
The content and technology to move to driverless cars cost about $2,700 per vehicle, according to Goldman Sachs. In agriculture, autonomous driving equipment would require technology where there is a slightly higher complexity, but "not disproportionately higher," Revich said.
"We're watching the sensor and technology prices really move down," said Rob Zemenchik, global product marketing manager for Case IH's precision farming unit, Advanced Farming Systems.
Europe's CNH Industrial, known for its Case IH tractor brand, unveiled an autonomous concept tractor last month in Iowa at the Farm Progress Show, one of the world's largest farm shows. CNH's autonomous tractor could presumably work unmanned around the clock and uses GPS and sensor technology. The grower could remotely monitor and control the machine using a device such as a tablet.
CNH's concept tractor does maintain the driver cab so the operator can perform tasks not presently suited to automation, such as commuting between fields or going through suburban or rural community roads to reach a farm.
"We're focusing on perfecting the off-road parts of the solution and we're very comfortable with our progress to date," said Zemenchik. CNH's autonomous tractor could come to market as early as 2020.
Deere and AGCO, two rival farm machinery manufacturers, have similar technologies.
A Deere spokesman said the farm equipment giant does not have a driverless tractor on the market, although the company has done some work on driverless technology in orchards.
Deere's strategy has been generally to develop ag technologies internally, although it recently tried to buy Monsanto's Precision Planting, but the Justice Department blocked that deal.