Case IH defines categories of autonomy and announces pilot programme

Supervised autonomy, one of the five categories of automation as defined by Case IH, allows an operator in one tractor to supervise the operation of a tractor without an operator in the same field.

Since revealing its autonomous concept vehicle, Case IH has been evolving the technology and further defining automation and autonomy as it relates to agriculture, and has been in discussions with customers around the world to study how this technology can be implemented for maximum benefit in their operations. Now, through its Autonomy and Automation Programme, Case IH is researching and piloting autonomous technology in real-life scenarios.

“While the autonomous concept vehicle revealed in 2016 showed the world what’s possible with autonomous vehicles, it was just that — a concept,” Case IH AFS global product manager Robert Zemenchik said. “This working tractor provided a platform for us to start discussions with farmers and the industry about the technology needed for high-efficiency farming operations today and in the future. We’re ready to show how automation and autonomy applies across agriculture and how it can advance the precision farming solutions our customers are currently using on their farms.”

Five categories of automation
Diverse farming operations around the world require varying levels of automation. Through extensive customer-driven product design research, Case IH found that current and future technology needs fall into five categories of automation for agricultural field applications. The categories and types of activities associated with each include:

  • Guidance
  • Coordination & Optimisation
  • Operator Assisted Automation
  • Supervised Autonomy
  • Full Autonomy

“It’s exciting to explore the efficiencies that automation and, eventually, full autonomy can bring to each farming operation,” Mr Zemenchik added. “The logic behind the categories is to provide a vision of what’s possible. They’re not linear, and a given fleet may even fit into more than one category at a time. Today, many of our customers are already operating in the Guidance and/or Operator Assisted Automation categories.”

The five categories defined by Case IH start with automating specific tasks on a piece of equipment. Case IH led the way by first providing producers with automation technology in the 1990s with AFS AccuGuide autoguidance, and it continues today with more advanced solutions, such as AFS AccuTurn automated headland turning technology and AFS Soil Command seedbed sensing technology.

Piloting autonomous technology in the field
This year, Case IH is collaborating with one of North America’s largest carrot producers, Bolthouse Farms, on an autonomous tractor pilot programme. The goal is to understand how new autonomous technology can be used, and how it meets real-world, on-farm requirements.

“The only way to validate on-farm uses for autonomous technology is, quite literally, with field pilots where farmers use it on their own farm, integrate it into their own fleet and conduct their everyday activities,” Mr Zemenchik said.

Bolthouse Farms is a year-round operation that farms extensive acreage across four US states and Canada. The company’s focus on and openness to advanced technology, coupled with its desire to improve productivity, makes it ideal for the pilot for the Case IH Autonomy and Automation Programme.

The pilot program will focus first on primary tillage and deep tillage – both highly repetitive tasks that Bolthouse Farms conducts year-round – and a small fleet of autonomous Quadtrac tractors pulling a True-Tandem disc harrow or Ecolo-Tiger disc ripper. This will help evaluate autonomous machine control in a variety of applications, soil types, meteorological conditions, and sensing and perception activities.

Case IH’s autonomous concept vehicle kickstarted the debate on automation in agriculture.

“One of the primary goals is to receive agronomic and operator feedback on the use of autonomous technology in real-world farm conditions so Case IH can further develop and refine our technological control and machine optimization systems,” Mr Zemenchik said. “Additionally, we’ll be able to learn from Bolthouse Farms what uses they envision for automation and autonomy that we might not have already thought of.”

Bolthouse Farms’ vice president of agriculture, Brian Grant, views the autonomous tractor pilot programme as an opportunity to find new ways to make the company’s operation more efficient and deliver high-quality food for the growing population.

“We’re just now starting to play the ‘What If?’ game, where we’re asking ourselves and the Case IH engineers the questions about what autonomous tractors are capable of,” he said. “And the answers to these questions are not ‘if’. It’s ‘when’.”

Case IH will provide periodic progress updates throughout the course of the pilot programme.

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