Supporting Farmers on a Progression of Autonomy
By Patricia Boothe, Sr. VP Trimble Autonomy (July 5, 2022)
When we think about autonomy in agriculture, it’s important to meet farmers where they are on their own autonomy journey.
For those who want to leap into Level 5 autonomy – with an operator-less vehicle – we intend to help them reach that goal.
But many people may be ready to achieve autonomous objectives in a more progressive fashion. After all, there are different catalysts for technology advancements, and farmers have different needs at different times.
This is how many will experience autonomy – as a progression. And there are definable ways that progression provides consistent value to farmers, whether it’s reducing input costs, increasing productivity, improving safety, or solving labor shortages.
Can we use less fertilizer or pesticide? Can we optimize the seed variety that we're planting? Can we reduce our emissions or our fuel usage?
When we get into the details of autonomy, the goal is to perform each of these operations better than we did before, delivering continually improved value to the farmer.
Bringing Together Past, Present, and Future
Traditionally, autonomy has been framed in five levels, with each defined by how much human interaction there is with the vehicle. Here at Trimble, we have been developing technology in the early levels of autonomy for almost two decades. For example, an early autonomous capability on a tractor is autosteer.
But while we have autonomous technology installed in over 500,000 agricultural machines, when people think of autonomy, they often picture an empty driver’s seat or empty tractor cab.
For reference, I like using an example from the movie Total Recall: the bad guys are chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he jumps into a taxi and the driver turns around to ask him where he wants to go. The surprise is that the driver is a robot – the taxi is fully autonomous.
I think that scene defines how many people view autonomy, but it’s important to realize that this sci-fi world is still pretty far away. However, automation has been here for 20 years already and there is an abundance of value currently being provided with operator-assisted technology – with no signs of that innovation slowing down.
Adapting to Meet Farmer Needs
Farmers will be the ones to decide how far and how fast they want to advance along their own autonomy journey. This includes both large and small farming operations with varying levels of complexity and different dynamics at play – all of which influence how autonomous solutions need to respond and scale. Plus, market needs change and we have to stay in touch with how those needs are evolving.
Often, this means putting ourselves in the shoes of the farmer. At Trimble, we have a significant number of employees within our agricultural business who have come from farms, or their family owns a farm, or they worked on a farm, etc. They see and understand the challenges farmers face. We understand through life experiences the needs of the modern farmer. For example, how could we optimize passes across the field to reduce crop damage and improve yields? Or how could autonomy help deliver more precise application and speed control, in order to increase productivity?
Combining that real-world, practical experience with decades of autonomous technology development and feedback from our customers around the world allows us to deliver autonomy solutions that meet the needs of farmers, on their own terms.
Driving Business Decisions
On our team, we’ve reframed those five levels of autonomy a bit when it comes to what we call “off-road” autonomy benefits and stages. We now talk about moving from operator assistance to task automation to supervised autonomy, full workflow automation, and, finally, network optimization.
With those higher levels of autonomy, full workflow automation and network optimization themes, we're talking about impacting the entire farming operation, regardless of its size. At that stage, autonomy isn’t only about controlling the machine -- it’s about maximizing and optimizing the information that allows farmers to make better business decisions.
In terms of network optimization, think of an operation where you have a variety of machines across different makes and models performing different activities at the same time. In that moment, farmers may need to make choices about scheduling labor appropriately, applying inputs at the absolute optimal time, or perhaps running a 24/7 operation – and, in most of these cases, they are looking to do many of those things with fewer resources.
An example is the context of farm labor. I think we're going to see less skilled labor required because autonomous technology will compensate for some of that skill. That’s going to allow farmers to redeploy labor to other areas of the operation. If a supervisor or a farm manager doesn’t have to be constantly monitoring equipment and operators in the field, they can focus their time and attention on other more productive tasks on the farm.
There’s also a cascading effect when we think about autonomy and the benefit it has on the reduction of inputs, which not only impacts profitability, but also falls under the umbrella of sustainability. Improving the quality and integrity of our food supply or helping us preserve our environment are things the market is already demanding and will continue to do.
Autonomy is already here, and it has been for a long time. We’ll see this progression of autonomy continue, and our goal is to meet farmers on their journey, on their own terms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patricia Boothe was named senior vice president of Trimble Inc.'s autonomy operating sector in 2019, where she is responsible for leading several businesses focused on deploying autonomy solutions. During her 21 years at Trimble, she has held a variety of leadership positions across various disciplines, including operations, marketing, and business leadership.
Most recently, Boothe volunteered as executive sponsor for Trimble's diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, where her advocacy launched Trimble's new Returnship program. Boothe earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business from San Jose State University. She is a native Californian, who now loves living in Colorado, where she enjoys camping, hiking, skiing, and playing golf in her spare time.