Farming tech for now and the near futureby Courtney Llewellyn

There’s a lot of really fun and innovative stuff going on with farm technology these days. There are advances that would make your grandparents’ – and even your parents’ – minds reel. A few of these technological wonders were discussed at this year’s virtual World Ag Expo.

Electric Tractors

With concerns about pollution, climate change and renewable resources being reported on almost daily, it was only a matter of time before electric tractors started joining the ranks of other electric vehicles. (As of December 2020, the cumulative sales of electric cars in the U.S. totaled 1.74 million vehicles.) Soletrac, a California-based electric tractor company, has developed 100% battery-powered, all-electric tractors, which CEO and found Steve Heckeroth said offers farmers independence from infrastructure constraints and the price volatility associated with diesel and gasoline.

Why consider electric tractors? Heckeroth listed the benefits, including quieter operation (65 decibels vs. up to 105 for something diesel-powered), the fact that the batteries can be renewably charged, they release zero emissions, the electric motors have maximum torque at low speeds, the battery weight can help improve traction and they can be used as mobile sources of back-up power.

“Electric tractors really shine in harvesting and transplanting operations because they can move so slowly,” he added.

In breaking down the math, Heckeroth noted that a 30-HP diesel tractor costs up to $7/hour to run (factoring in fuel cost, as determined by Iowa State University); a 30-HP electric tractor only costs 86 cents to $1 per hour. The only “fuel cost” is how much electricity it takes to recharge the battery.

Soletrac currently offers three models: the 30-HP Farmtrac, the 40-HP eUtility and the 30-HP eFarmer. A larger 70-HP tractor is currently in development with a proprietary design for vineyards and orchards.

“There’s 600 million farms in the world, and only 5% of them have tractors,” Heckeroth said. “North American sales of tractors 40-horsepower and under total $9 billion, with about 160,000 tractors sold in 2019.” He believes that going forward, more of them may be electric tractors.

Connected Machinery

Connectivity technology continues to be built into ag machines of all types, with the goals of improving productivity and efficiency. This technology integration has started a shift in thinking from just focusing on the function of a machine to considering the entire ag production workflow. It also means more highly-automated and autonomous machines to address labor shortages.

But what value do connected machines bring to the farm? That’s what Darcy Cook, VP of engineering and general manager of JCA Technologies, answered. “Advances in connective technology in equipment provides many opportunities for efficiency improvements,” he said. That includes agronomy output – higher yields per area and therefore increased revenues – and farming operations – better use of resources (such as labor, equipment and inputs) and therefore lower costs.

Connected ag machines may utilize the Internet of Things (IoT) to connect devices to the internet without direct human involvement; mobile devices and apps, which have become an extension of many human activities; or cloud computing, which stores data and analytics and connects IoT and mobile devices with remote/abstracted physical infrastructure (like hard drives).

Cook said benefits include connecting operators to machines through mobile devices for fleet management (remote monitoring of machine locations and health status, remote diagnostics and configuration/support), agronomic data monitoring (use sensors on machines to collect information for purposes of analytics and planning) and task management (communication between users and machines, or machine to machine, to direct or automate the operation of the machine task).

“It’s about finding the best value in connectivity – the user is interested in accomplishing a job, not operating a machine,” he said. “The job is typically part of a larger workflow that involves other jobs and other people. The main benefit of connectivity is passing along information that helps in the overall process of efficiency in workflow.”

Ag Uses for 5G

Of course, to use connected machinery, you need fast, reliable internet. The 5G cellular communications network that’s being built across America has the potential to create a new era of precision agriculture, improving crop monitoring, tracking insects, reducing water use and controlling the aforementioned farm machinery.

“We’ve been using 2G (which allowed SMS texting and came about in 1993) and 3G (for internet browsing since about 2001) for a long time,” said Neil Schultz, general manager of Altrac, a manufacturer of cellular control devices for ag equipment. 4G, which boosted video sharing and gaming, came about in 2009, and the country has been transitioning to 5G since 2018. “The big question is what does that unlock?” he asked.

Schultz hasn’t heard of very many good applications for agriculture yet, besides drones, but deployment in rural areas will take a while. The benefits of a 5G network include redundancy (each modem is independent, versus a single point of failure with 4G), easy deployment (it automatically connects to the cloud), low maintenance and constant activity (the modems are always connected).

As the national networks are upgraded, the hardware and data costs will decrease. Data that cost $20/month in 2010 is estimated to only cost 20 cents/month in 2025.

Altrac is developing uses for 5G for wind machines, pumps and weather stations as well as frost monitoring and control and irrigation monitoring and control. The ultimate goal is to have the network work with any existing equipment via a single platform.