ANOTHER year skips by as the inexorable surge of technology continues.
But the big question coming out of 2017 is the timeline of farmers wanting to embrace this technology.
Given that less than 10 per cent of farmers have adopted yield monitor technology, which was first introduced in 2000, the timeline might be a moot point.
But taking a positive stance, about 90pc of farmers have adopted guidance and sons and daughters taking over the farm are more tech-savvy than dad and mum and know how to utilise all that GPS-referenced data collected over the past 17 years, much of which is laying idle in the office computer.
They have a different mindset and are more likely to seek information they don’t know about rather than just firing off an expletive at the “stupid” computer.
More than any other year, technology talk in 2017 focused on robotics, or autonomous machinery.
More companies announced plans or revealed R&D projects dealing with autonomous cars, trucks, tractors, harvesters and air seeders.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, Kubota Tractor Company, leapt out of the autonomous blocks in January announcing it had built a 45kW (60hp) tractor, a 75kW (100hp) combine harvester, an automatic rice planter and a combination tractor and vegetable planter.
Case IH and New Holland also signalled their intention to get serious about machine autonomy with concept vehicles.
Case’s concept autonomously-controlled vehicle (ACV) is a cabless Case IH row crop tractor that can operate autonomously with a wide range of paddock implements.
It can move around the farm on private roads and follows a pre-set route.
Through the use of radar, lidar (light imaging, detection, and ranging) and on-board video cameras, the vehicle can sense stationary or moving obstacles in its path and will stop on its own until the operator, notified by audio and visual alerts, assigns a new path.
The ACV can be controlled either via a desktop computer or a portable handheld tablet.
New Holland’s entry, the NH Drive autonomous tractor, is a cab tractor enabling human operation, if necessary or desired.
It can be monitored and controlled via a desktop computer or via a portable tablet interface.
A path-plotting screen shows the tractor’s progress, while another shows its live camera feed, providing the user with up to four real-time views (two front and two rear).
A further screen enables monitoring and modification of key machine and implement parameters such as engine speed, fuel levels and implement settings, including seeding rate or coulter down-force.
The route to the field can also be planned, should this involve private roads or tracks.
Indian manufacturer Mahindra and Mahindra has signalled its autonomous tractor will be commercially produced early next year.
According to the company the need for farm mechanisation is higher than ever before, due to labour shortage and the need to improve productivity.
The autonomous technology will be deployed across Mahindra tractor platforms in the future with a power range said to be between 15kW (20hp) and 75kW (100hp).
Features of Mahindra’s autono- mous tractor will include auto steer, auto-headland turn, auto-implement lift and skip passing.
Safety features will include Geofence lock, to prevent the tractor from going outside the boundaries of the farm, remote stopping and remote engine start.
John Deere, which is always criticised for following and not leading, put its proverbial hands up this year by acquiring California tech company Blue River Technology.
The move is a clear signal of Deere’s intentions to ramp up its AI efforts, particularly in the field of autonomous vehicles.
Blue River is a leader in applying machine learning to agriculture.
Blue River Technology has successfully applied machine learning to agricultural spraying equipment and Deere is confident that similar technology can be used in the future on a wider range of products.
AGCO debuted its contribution in November at the annual Agritechnica Show in Hannover, Germany, with its Fendt MARS system - mobile agricultural robot swarms.
The system relies on a number of small, auto-steered and electric units that are (initially) deployed for maize drilling.
The autonomous units are filled with seed by an operator, who also monitors their operation and who transports them to the field on a trailer.
Manufactured to a cost-saving concept and weighing as little as 40 kilograms each, the swarm units co-ordinate their work in the field, reduce compaction and minimise the hazard that big machines pose to humans and the environment.
AGCO expects a fleet of field robots could also be offered as a service by dealers to farmers since they could presumably be put on a trailer and delivered.
If that happens, the Duluth, Georgia-based company said it could reduce the capital costs for the farmer since they wouldn’t need to make a big equipment purchase.
German manufacturer CLAAS remained quiet this year on its plans in the autonomy field but it must only be a matter of time before it makes an announcement, given the plethora of autonomous functions it already has built into its range of tractors and headers.
In fact, it has to take the prize for the most new releases this year, most of which are forerunners of autonomous control.
In November it picked up another gold medal at Agritechnica, Hanover, Germany, for its CEMOS auto threshing system.
Meanwhile Fendt, a regular Agritechnica gold medal winner, released its much anticipated Fendt 1000 series tractors this year.
With models ranging from 283kW to 373kW (380-500hp), the new range is hailed as the industry’s most powerful rigid-frame tractor, designed for year-round work.
Coupled with a Vario transmission, the 1000 Series is capable of speeds of 40 kilometres an hour at a low 950rpm.
Maximum torque is achieved at 1100rpm and is maintained to 1500rpm, resulting in maximum fuel efficiency.
Another AGCO/Fendt entry at Agritechnica was the Fendt e100 Vario electric tractor.
Fendt says its e100 is the first practical, battery-powered tractor which can be used in normal operation for a full working day without the need to recharge.
It’s a portent of things to come and it has increased speculation that within the next 10 years, electrics may have replaced hydraulic functions.
New self-propelled boomsprayers also hit the market, notably from Agrifac, HARDI and Goldacres.
Agrifac raised its profile by putting its new Condor Endurance to work in Perenjori, with a 48 metre (150ft) boom and 8000 litre tank, smashing two world records.
Tasked with a 2638 hectare (6515.86ac) summer spraying program, the job was completed in a non-stop 24 hours.
That’s an average of almost 110 hectares an hour, with a top of 150.7ha/hr, which was designated a second world record.
HARDI presented its HARDI 9000 Rubicon to the market - a front-mount 9000 model equipped with a 9000L stainless steel tank and a 48.5m (160ft) boom.
Goldacres released a new G8 8000L Super Cruiser model adapted with four independent Soucy tracks and a new 48m (158ft) tri-fold boom.
The company is confident tracked SPs will find a large niche in the market.
On the seeding side, Seed Hawk unveiled its iCon Seed Hawk 660 air cart and iCon 45 Series Seed Hawk bar.
The iCon Seed Hawk, with section control and variable rate capability, boasts a new metering system for the iCon air carts allowing accurate sowing between one and 500 kilograms a hectare of seed and fertiliser at speeds of up to 15km/h.
Muddy River also weighed in with a Horsch Focus TD strip-till seeder, which can deep rip with adjustable placement of fertiliser and provide optional singulation of seed.
This year Muddy River held trials to establish proof of concept, with high hopes of attracting market interest for 2018.
And there’s a special mention to our future farmers who are learning to write algorithms for software programs for autonomous vehicles.
It wasn’t a dream when this writer discovered Dowerin District High School, Year Five and Year Six students programmed a LEGO robot to move forward and reverse.
Pretty basic stuff, but nonetheless primordial steps towards what one day could be a WA-made autonomous vehicle for the farm.
This year also saw the commercial release of the Integrated Harrington Seed Destructor (IHSD), invented by Darkan farmer Ray Harrington.
Arguably, it would have to rank among the best new releases for 2017, given its success in reducing weed seed burdens and playing a major role in negating herbicide resistance.
If United States farmers adopt this technology, Ray and investor, the Grains Research and Development Corporaiton, will have to find a bigger factory to build the units.
It will be farmers who pressure major machinery manufacturers to include them in their headers.
The IHSD is a bolt-on module with two mills replacing existing spinners on the rear of the header.
Each mill contains a rota mill which rotates at 3000rpm and a stator mill, which sees weed seeds virtually obliterated as they move through vertical vanes.
The mills only collect the chaff containing the weed seeds off the sieves with straw conventionally fed to choppers or spreaders.
The tracks versus tyres debate continued in 2017 with Victorian company Goldacres revealing a G8CT prototype, based on the Goldacres G8 8000L Super Cruiser.
The self-propelled sprayer has been adapted with four independent Soucy tracks and a new 48m (158ft) tri-fold boom.
The Soucy system has a 406 millimetre (16in)-wide belt with contact length of 2150mm (7ft).
Goldacres says the tracks will provide twice the ground contact area compared to a 520/85R46 tyre.
The track width is 300 centimetres (10ft) and ground clearance of the prototype is 94cm (3ft).
While the prototype has steering arms on the bottom, the commercial models will have steering arms at the top for increased clearance.
It is designed to travel up to 40km/h, though like all track systems, operators will need to manage potential overheating and wear.
Towards the end of the year, Primaries CRT officially announced it has been in a four-year collaboration with Ausplow Farming Systems and liquid nutrient manufacturer Nutrian, trialling new liquid products and refining liquid delivery systems.
Liquids are on everybody’s radar as products have improved along with ease of application.
New chemistry could make crop establishment and crop nutrition a game-changer using liquid nutrients.
Random technology also gets a guernsey here with the release of the Michelin AX BIB ultraflex IF tyres.
Using a tyre inflation system on your cab display, you simply enter the required pressure and a wireless signal sends the command to a compressor mounted on the rear of the tractor to activate a selected tyre to either inflate or deflate.
The tyres provide on-the-go tyre pressure settings to ensure you’re always getting the precise pressure you want in varying soil conditions.
While looking back provides a good insight to help you look forward, there is a take-home message for budding farmers: despite new technology making farming decisions easier, dad and mum might have some salient bits of wisdom for you.