Interview Karl Huber: Smart Farming with autonomous tractors
At this year's Farm Progress Show in Iowa, a prototype of Case IH's autonomous tractor concept was presented for the first time. Karl Huber, Head of Development at Case IH Steyr, talks in an interview about the opportunities and risks of autonomous tractors and smart agriculture.
Question: Mr. Huber, which technologies are used for autonomous tractors?
Karl Huber: Basically, the autonomous tractor concept is a GPS-supported technology that works with base stations to correct the position error of the GPS signals and increase the accuracy. The tractor is driven by an automatic steering system that we have been using for years. The vehicle is controlled by means of an interactive user interface, via which pre-programmed operations can be monitored. The security functions for detecting stationary or moving obstacles are implemented using radar, video cameras, LiDAR and laser technology.
Question: What are the advantages of autonomous tractors and precision farming?
Karl Huber: You can simply do business much more efficiently and sustainably. Less fertiliser and spray must be used, fuel can be saved and yields are higher. For example, if you only give a plant exactly what it needs, overfertilisation can be prevented. And if spraying agents are applied more specifically, consumption is automatically lower.
Question: Is the autonomous tractor concept also interesting for organic farmers?
Karl Huber: Yes, absolutely. Organic farmers are very fond of technology because they have to use it much more intensively than conventional farms. One example: successful organic farms sometimes run row crops. A conventional farm uses herbicides to control the weeds that grow in the open space between the rows of crops. The organic farmer has to use steering systems in order to really only pull out the weeds with the row processing machines. It is only with automatic steering systems that you have a chance at all.
Question: What about the use of autonomous tractors in mountainous regions?
Karl Huber: From a technical point of view, autonomous tractors can be used everywhere. In wine-growing areas, cabless tractors are now primarily in use, as the spray agents used are not only applied to the plant, but also generate a mist in the entire environment. In the past, we used activated carbon filters to protect the tractor operator and took safety precautions in the cabs - which is extremely difficult with small winegrowing tractors. That's why viticulture is predominantly autonomous.
Question: Farming 4.0 or Precision Farming is already well established in agriculture - how can the autonomous tractor concept be classified here?
Karl Huber: Basically, only a few percent of innovation has been added with the autonomous tractor concept. Precision farming started 15 years ago. They started with the combine harvester, which produced a yield mapping during threshing. This mapping made it possible to determine where the yield has declined. Soil samples were taken from the low yield areas and checked to see what the plant was missing. This has become more and more refined over time. Meanwhile, the chlorophyll content can be determined via satellite and how the plant is doing. On the basis of these data, the fertiliser spreader is controlled, i.e. the fertiliser application rate. The plant really only gets what it needs. In addition, the field sprayer is also equipped with a feature that is only sprayed where the plant needs something.
The term "Precision Farming" also includes automatic steering systems, which have also been increasingly refined. The first steering systems could only drive straight. More powerful vehicle computer systems have made it possible for the tractors to drive around bends and meanwhile it is also possible to drive on normal roads. You drive the tractor along the road once and then he can follow it.
And when automatic steering systems were introduced into the production process, it was surprising that farmers were prepared to invest so much. One did not expect that this would also cause such a hype in the small town of Austria. The reason for this was as follows: When the farmer no longer has stress with steering, he can concentrate more on the implement. The tractor itself is of course of no interest to the farmer. All he has to do is provide the power for the attachment. For example, if the seeds in a seed drill do not pass through the tube and the farmer does not notice this, then he only sees it in the rising, i.e. when the field does not open properly. Then it is too late because the plant can no longer be sown.
On these fallow areas, however, the weeds come through, can multiply beautifully there and spread the seeds over the entire field. Spray must be used again. And that is why the use of high-tech in agriculture has established itself relatively quickly under the premise of sustainability. In addition, an automatic steering system plus/minus makes it possible to drive two centimetres exactly in parallel. You can save yourself the track marker.
To cut a long story short: in fact, autonomous driving is only a daunting task, because the technology was already so sophisticated. Technically speaking, the autonomous tractor is no longer the big challenge for us. In the end, autonomous driving is only the step to relieve the driver.
Question: So only the outside observer who has not followed these technical developments perceives the autonomous tractor as a groundbreaking innovation?
Karl Huber: Yes, exactly. Agriculture still has the nimbus of the smoking, smelling, noisy industry. It's still in the minds of many people. But the fact that we have been driving continuously for years, paying attention to exhaust values and always trying to be at the cutting edge of technology does not penetrate. If anyone knows anything about agriculture, it is that farmers receive so much support. These are examples of the fact that agriculture does not necessarily have the best reputation, because we smell, are noisy and also drive through the villages on weekends. The truck can't do it, the tractor can. That's just a little unfair. But everyone wants good quality on the farmer's market, of course.
Question: How do you see the development of machine networking?
Karl Huber: This is already ready for series production. For example, the combine harvester takes control of the tractor and when the grain is loaded onto the trailer of the tractor, the combine harvester determines the speed of the tractor. This works in the same way with the shredder. You no longer drive with half-full trailers to the truck or company and save two to three trips a day. And here we are back to environmental thinking in the sense of sustainability and efficiency.
Question: Can we speak of series production readiness for autonomous tractors?
Karl Huber: From a technical point of view and from the safety equipment, basically yes. However, there are still security questions, so you want to keep it even smaller at the moment and don't want to go straight to the point. This also raises the question of big data management. If you don't know exactly in which direction the whole thing will develop, there is a certain risk potential associated with it.
Question: Do you address safety issues with regard to Big Data Management?
Karl Huber: No, I mean wild growth. Almost 20 years ago, attempts were made to define interfaces via which the attachment communicates with the tractor. This is very difficult to achieve because it is always accompanied by a greed for profit. If this technology falls into the wrong hands, it will not go the way we want it to. We are about sustainability and we don't want to take anything away from anyone.
Question: Socially critical voices repeatedly point to the loss of labour by autonomous tractors. How do you feel about that?
Karl Huber: That no people will be needed at all in the future will not happen in this way. Tractorists in the conventional sense no longer exist anyway. It looks easy when the tractor drives autonomously in the field, but what is behind it is usually not seen. A lot of know-how is needed in the background. In the end, one leaves a time-consuming and boring task to the machine and the specialist can be employed in other areas. Time-consuming application is no longer necessary. The autonomous driving is only the step that one also relieves the driver. The resources that have become available can be used more effectively in other areas, for example to concentrate more on quality.
Question: Where do you see the greatest challenges for the future?
Karl Huber: Industry 4.0 is a huge topic. The next generation in particular will certainly have to overcome a hurdle that is much more difficult than Industry 3.0, because a lot of abuse can happen and the development is progressing so quickly that there is sometimes no time to deal with it. You have to be very careful in this area.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Ad Personam: Karl Huber grew up on a farm and gained experience with tractors at a young age. Technology and handicrafts were his passion back then, today he is development manager at Case IH Steyr in St. Valentin, which now belongs to Fiat and thus to CNH Industrial, a global player. Together with his team, he develops innovative tractors and has overall responsibility for the next model. Read also our article about Karl Huber in the LEAD User Portrait.
Born in the Salzkammergut. After working for Shell and Porsche, he concentrated on innovation management as a study assistant at the Innovation Department of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. In 2003 he founded LEAD Innovation and manages the company as Managing Partner. Lectures at MIT, in front of companies like Google or NASA.