The future of autonomous agriculture is here. Should we embrace it?

The answer to that question boils down to liability, liability and more liability

Brian Tischler’s autonomous tractor.

We have heard a lot in recent years about self-driving vehicles. Technology has arrived that makes the concept affordable and relatively simple.

Alberta farmer, Brian Tischler spoke to an audience at the CropConnect conference in Winnipeg last month to provide insights into what that new tech means for farmers.

Tischler is something of a hobbyist when it comes to autonomous agriculture, but his technical expertise comes from his training as a biomedical engineering technologist. He has developed software that works with a tractor’s GPS that would allow it to drive the tractor autonomously. And last year, he developed his own autonomous tractor.

Tischler’s AgOpenGPS is open-source software that anyone can download and alter to suit their needs.

“I’m not in this to make money. Everything I learn and I write, I just share with the world. It’s my contribution back to agriculture,” said Tischler. While it theoretically can be used (and he did use it) to run a tractor, the software documentation explicitly notes that it is only for simulation purposes.

Tischler ran such a simulation over the course of his presentation. The simulation saw the tractor navigate around obstacles as it “seeded” a computer-generated field.

He took audience members through the history of automated tractors. He began back in the 1940s, when someone attached a tractor to a water-filled barrel with a rope and as the rope shortened and the circle tightened until the tractor reached the centre. He proceeded to the first electronic versions in the ’90s through to today when every manufacturer has developed some kind of prototype autonomous tractor. Tischler also shared some of his own experiences in the development of his autonomous tractor (which are well documented on his YouTube channel, FarmerBrianTee).

“Self-driving isn’t about the hardware. It isn’t about the tractor. It’s all about software,” notes Tischler. “Any tractor can be autonomous. What’s really important is its ability to detect its surroundings and apply that to how it drives.”

And since the technology is now very affordable (Tischler described putting together a unit for $1,000), it begs the question, “why are we not seeing these autonomous tractors on farms?”

The answer is safety. For very much the same reason that Tischler includes a caveat in his software to ensure people only use it for simulations, there are no manufacturers trying to sell their prototype autonomous tractors.

“What about the neighbourhood kids who are curious and come across the fence?” Tischler asked. “They’re not going to read the sign that says ‘Caution: Autonomous Tractor in Operation.’ You’re going to kill them.”

He stressed that we are not talking about a remote-control toy.

“It has to be able to think and derive its surroundings electronically and mathematically. It has to react, keep safe and keep out of trouble.” There are a lot of elements involved in making that happen.

Of course, there are also a lot of elements involved with keeping autonomous cars safe and industry is still pushing ahead with it. And compared with the complexities of self-driving cars, a tractor in a field is orders of magnitude simpler than what is required for navigating busy intersections in a large city.

“It’s a field, it’s locked down. It’s a defined border,” notes Tischler.

But simple still doesn’t equal safe.

“Farmers cannot be beta testers for autonomous ag. It’s far too dangerous and something that should never be considered,” Tischler emphasized. “It has to be proven to work.”

It is a bit of an ethical dilemma and Tischler is as cautious as he is enthusiastic about the prospects.

“It’s a really fun project. It’s fun to share the knowledge and share the information, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Tischler. “Is it cool? Yes. Is it possible? Yes. The question is, ‘should we?’”

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