There is a feverish buzz in the machinery world at present, as manufacturers stake their claims to what future kit on farms could look like.
Alex Heath looks at some of the concepts manufacturers are currently touting and whether they could become reality.
For 175 years, the agricultural industry has seen many technological advancements, from the increased use of steel in the 1800s to the advent of tractors and increased mechanisation in the 1900s, to the now commonplace use of electronic control systems and GPS of today.
However, farming is moving into a new era, with a myriad of future options already visible.
Which course the industry will take is still up for debate, but some things are for certain and the industry will continue to see increased amounts of automation, electrification and robotics, as farms look to become more efficient.
AUTOMATION AND AUTONOMY
THE global population is becoming increasingly urbanised, a trend also seen in the UK. Weather patterns are changing and the window of opportunity for many field tasks is tightening.
An increase in autonomy will allow farms to run a smaller workforce without compromising on the timeliness of planting, harvesting, spraying and other time-sensitive procedures.
The two sister companies under the CNH Industrial banner, Case IH and New Holland, have been among the most vocal regarding their attempts at creating the tractor of the future.
While the blue machine still looks fairly conventional, the red is striking in its appearance, devoid of a cab. A message of intent.
The technology developed within its autonomous concept is already being migrated to its standard tractors, allowing for greater automation, precision and communication.
At present, the company says a master-slave arrangement is most feasible, but its latest tractors have most of the technology needed on-board for full autonomy.
Fendt and John Deere have also been investigating the practicalities of controlling a tractor from the seat of another machine, including another tractor or combine.
ELECTRIFICATION AND ALTERNATIVE FUELS
AS agriculture looks to become greener, electrification is most definitely on the radar of many manufacturers.
Diesel is currently out of fashion in the eco-friendly stakes and, with tightening health and safety legislation, especially in enclosed sheds, electric power certainly has its advantages.
Engine manufacturer Deutz Ag has already embarked down this route with its acquisition of Torqueedo, and electric out-board motor manufacturer for boats.
While, at the time, it was an unknown venture, the company is now in a position to supply an electric alternative to its engines fitted in many brands of telehandler.
However, the company reasons telehandlers and other yard-based machines are most likely to be targeted for electrification, due to the lower power requirement, compared to a tractor, and proximity to a charging point.
Other loader manufacturers have also started showing electric models, including JCB with its 30-19E Teletruk, Merlo with its e-Worker concept, as well as Avant, Weidemann and Schaffer, with their already established compact pivot-steer models.
Tractor manufacturers, on the other hand, have been slower to the electric party. This is for a number of reasons, not least the demand placed on batteries when under load.
However, it is likely tractors of the future will follow the rail and mining industries’ hybrid route.
This system of diesel engines powering generators which, in turn, provide electrical power to wheels, has been a mainstay of the rail industry since the 1970s and 1990s for mining haul trucks.
Belarus is one manufacturer leading in the way on this front, with John Deere also recently announcing its own hybrid drive concept.
The Belarus 3623, Minsk-built tractor produces 360hp and uses a proven setup of engine, generator and a single electric motor providing power to the planetary final drives of the rear axle.
Likewise, John Deere has also touted its eAutoPowr concept, using a similar setup, built in collaboration with Joskin, highlighting the increased efficiency of the drivetrain and the ability to drive axles on the implement being pulled.
The manufacturer has recently shown a compact electric drive unit with integrated attachment concept. Still in concept stage, the manufacturer says it will have outputs of up to 670hp, powered exclusively by batteries, and be fully autonomous.
However, combustion engines may still have their place. New Holland is to start selling its methane-powered T6 tractors in 2020, providing farms with anaerobic digesters a ‘closed energy loop’.
Power-wise, it is comparable to its diesel counterparts with a slightly different torque curve. However, running costs are said to be 30 per cent lower, while overall emission levels are some 80 per cent lower.
ROBOTICS AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
THE current debate surrounding robotics involves many schools of thought, including standard machinery operated autonomously, groups of smaller intelligent robots as well as pre-programmed drones and sophisticated camera controlled implements.
While the dairy industry has been an early adopter of technology which carries out monotonous farm tasks, such as milking, scraping and feeding, as has the potato industry for bag stacking, for example, in-field robotics are somewhat lagging behind.
However, there are several companies which are engaging with in-field robotics, with examples such as Fendt’s Xaver mobile agricultural robot swarm and the Small Robot Company’s (SRC) trio of ‘bots nearing commercial reality.
Both of these concepts require numerous robots to complete the task, which for the Fendt design is planting maize, which can be done at a rate of one hectare per hour (2.5 acres/hour) with a group of six to 12. Due to the size of both these robots, field work can be carried out when larger equipment would not be able to travel.
The crowdfunded SRC has taken things a step further, developing ideas for robots which not only plant, with accurate plotting of seeds on a virtual map, but also survey the growing crop, making recommendations for fertiliser and plant protection products, as well as one which desiccates weed and applies crop care sprays.
It is anticipated this will run as a service with all but the surveillance robot based off-farm and delivered as and when they are needed.
But there is currently a rapid increase in mechanical weeding offerings from a diverse range of machinery manufacturers, as a number of active ingredients become more likely to be withdrawn from the market.
Both Steketee and Garford use clever camera systems which can identify between crop and weeds, reducing nutrient competition and the need for spraying.
However, these have both been optimised for precision planted crops, rather than board-scale arable crops. As of late, there has been a surge in the number and width of spring tine harrows on the market, with some now up to 24 metres wide, rivalling the output of sprayers, without the use of glyphosate.
But future tech will not just be confined to terra firma, with drones starting to take to the air for ag purposes. While currently used for crop surveillance, spotting weeds and analysing nutrient levels, in the future crop protection applications could be the reality, with John Deere recently showing a collaborative effort; the Volocopter, an 18-rotor, 9.2m drone with a payload of 200kg.