On a recent bright, clear day in eastern Nebraska, a small red machine crept through a lush field of soybeans. From the highway, it looked like a small tractor. Up close, its mess of wires came into focus. So did the laptop strapped to the back.
This is the Flex-Ro (Flexible Robotic Unit), one of several robots across the world being designed and tested to help farmers maximize crop yield, use fewer pesticides, and manage the industry’s dwindling labor market.
It’s a change some early-career farmers are ready to embrace. But for the average farmer, who’s 55 or older and didn’t grow up with computers and tables, transitioning to a higher-tech method of farming will not be easy. In order to work for their consumers, robots will need to be smarter than a person, but designed simply enough for any one to troubleshoot with their own tools.
Santosh Pitla, a professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is developing the Flex-Ro, an autonomous field robot designed to identify and study crops in the field.
“This tractor is navigating by itself using a GPS,” he said, “one of the applications we are looking for this robotic platform is as a sensing platform. So we have cameras, height sensors, temperature humidity sensors.”
Pitla originally designed the robot to scout crops — that is to do the job of the people who evaluate the quality of a farm’s soil and crops and advise farmers on how to better care for their crops.
But the machine’s abilities have since been expanded to seeding crops, managing weeds and target-spraying pesticides.
“So you can add, we can add at least up to 50 to 60 computers on this machine. And it will not affect the overall design,” he said.
The machine has done well on social media. That’s how Dan Bauer, a 23-year-old corn and soy farmer in north-central Nebraska found it. He said he’s hopeful that robot-driven precision agriculture will provide farmers with more data about their fields than ever before.
“[It’s] amazing when you think about it, because we're taking 160 acres and we're breaking it all the way down to the square foot of elevation, slope, soil chemistry, biological aspects. It's just, there's so many things that we can pull from it ... and we just started in on that,” he said. “That makes me excited.”
The average farmer didn’t grow up using computers. Keeping up with newer technologies requires time and commitment. Jim Arens, a 73-year-old farmer in northwestern Nebraska, had to teach himself how to use the pivot monitors his sons installed a few years back.
“Most people my age don't want anything doing a computer. But I've been able to keep up because I forced myself to learn a book keeping system with a computer,” he said. Others, he said, “not so much.”
Arens isn’t strictly against newer farm technologies. But fully autonomous field robots?
“I would kind of draw the line there myself, I guess, because I just don’t think taking the human element out of it entirely is going to be the answer,” he said.
Arens has heard the argument that driverless equipment is more efficient than human laborers. But, after a lifetime of constantly making day-to-day equipment adjustments, he doesn’t trust that line of thought.
“I’ve been in farming long enough to know that if I’m not in the seat of the tractor, how am I going to know if there’s a washout 10-foot deep that the tractor is headed for?” he said.
Bauer also notices a generation gap, and said some older farmers don’t want to invest in a product they don’t know how to fix themselves.
“A lot of the younger guys will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I have to have that.’ And the older guys are like, ‘Yeah, it’s nice … when it works,” he said.
Taking malfunctioning equipment to a dealership can be a long haul. That’s part of why Bauer likes Flex-Ro: He can use his own tools to troubleshoot problems.
“I really hope going forward, they keep it really, really simple, where farmers can work on it themselves and not have to worry about having a technician come out and work on it,” he said.
Pitla agreed that a truly smart robot design will plan for breakdowns, and he envisions farmers using 10-20 of them, depending on how much land they farm.
Flex-Ro, like many field robots, is still in its infancy stages, and won’t be available for purchase for years. Pitla’s main concern is making a robot that any farmer can work with at any time of year, and one that records reliable data that’s useful to farmers.
“How do we use data to make decisions, you know, in season in real time? I think that's smart agriculture,” Pitla said. “That's kind of the next thing.”
Follow Christina on Twitter: @c_c_stella