March 21, 2024


Benefits of Agricultural Automation

The agriculture industry is facing numerous challenges. Specialty crops are continuously faced with labor scarcity, while row crops have to manage space limitations and maximize crop yield. All of agriculture is faced with razor-thin margins as costs continue to increase.

Automation helps with all of these issues and more. Transitioning to semi-autonomous and autonomous machines reduces labor demand, increases production, improves crop yield, reduces water usage, and enhances overall operational efficiency.

Labor shortage is a growing problem. Automation can help reduce the dependency on manual labor by transitioning highly repetitive and dangerous jobs to autonomous machines. These machines can also help absorb the challenges of seasonal labor demands. 

As the world population continues to grow, agriculture is struggling to meet increasing production demands. Automated machines can help increase food production rates and can optimize processes to maximize crop yields. 

The growth in population and decrease in available land is also putting significant pressure on water resources. The availability and cost of water can be detrimental to farming. Smart farming can reduce water consumption and irrigation costs.

Overall operational costs for farms continue to grow. Autonomous machines help save time, energy, and resources by enabling farmers to complete tasks more efficiently, with a higher crop yield, and with less variable costs. By adopting technology and automation, farmers can overcome many of the challenges they face today and transition to more sustainable and efficient farming practices.

Building Safe Autonomous Farming Equipment

A common misconception is that autonomous machines have to be “fully-baked” to commercialize. Because functional safety and autonomy are forever evolving no machine will ever be fully-baked. There are alternative ways to mitigate risks with early low volume fleets. Technology evolves as it is deployed in the hands of customers, including the increase of safety (e.g. better training of neural networks over time). 

Functional Safety Development

Some worry that a focus on product safety, specifically functional safety, will slow down commercialization of technology. While it may initially seem so, functional safety (which is focused on electronic and SW controls), is essentially good systems engineering. Therefore, a focus on functional safety will eventually lead to more sustainable product performance and better business results.

A balanced approach prioritizes activities and requirements which drive the architectural definition. This approach increases the chances that the end design will incur only incremental cost to meet industry standards, and therefore be suitable for commercialization. Focusing on functional safety does not necessarily slow development. For example, using certified components leads to faster integration of those components into a system due to their well-documented interfaces. 

The ROI of Machine Safety

With the current economic environment, many small and medium sized companies are worried they cannot afford to implement functional safety because it is too expensive. Plus, their investors are focused only on customer value and functionality. Companies that do not pay attention to functional safety, early on, commonly face obstacles to commercialization of their products. This lack of attention results in delays to earning revenue, customer frustration, and potential loss of enthusiasm by investors. 

Small companies can start applying the principles of product safety, and more specifically functional safety, by choosing a subset of the requirements written in the relevant safety standard. For example, even if the architecture is not stable and the engineering team is still focused on delivering basic functionality, it still makes sense to execute a preliminary hazard analysis and risk assessment. This activity can uncover key hazards that will drive architectural requirements. Finding these requirements after the architecture has been implemented, can result in frustration, delays, and costly rework. 

Early investors may appear to be fully focused on functionality and customer value. However, seasoned venture capital investors realize that the sustainability of the business hinges on meeting key expectations in the market. One of those expectations is safety. Accidents can result in costly lawsuits and, if the company has not been diligent in executing efforts from a defensible position, all of the investment may be lost in court.  

Connectivity for Autonomous Equipment

Only half of all farms have any form of connectivity, and without connectivity, autonomous machines will not work. Connectivity is important for operational support, data collection and machine control. Fortunately, there is a great deal of flexibility available in this space. With the introduction of Low Earth Orbit Satellites, private cellular networks, ISM radio, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, people have more options than ever before. Furthermore, connectivity does not need to be constant. Machines can connect when at a hub location to receive  route information and exchange other machine information. This flexibility in wireless communication reduces the limitations that many agriculture sites face.

Alex Foessel


Alex Foessel on SAE Tomorrow Today Podcast

Alex Foessel on SAE Tomorrow Today Podcast

SAE International is the leader in connecting and educating mobility professionals to enable safe, clean, and accessible mobility solutions. SAE is a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and...

read more