The move toward an autonomous future in agriculture continues, but the trip often requires partnership and acquisitions. In the first half of 2021, Germany-based equipment maker Horsch teamed up with Trimble with an eye toward the development of autonomous machines.
"We had tried to work with the big companies working on autonomy," says Michael Horsch, founder, Horsch Equipment. "We talked with ZF, Bosch and Continental, and all three were obviously deep into autonomous driving sensors, and computers and software for the car industry."
Those auto-focused tech providers weren't the right fit for the farm equipment innovator, but another longtime partner was. Trimble has worked with Horsch for more than five years, providing correction services for the company.
Horsch tells Farm Progress that just over a year ago, Trimble came to Horsch to deepen the conversation on opportunities in automation. Trimble's new division is focused 100% on autonomy.
While those big players in autonomous systems have interesting tech, they lacked something Horsch says is critical: "From a security point of view, an important piece is a safe geofence with a very safe reference signal [for GPS equipment]. Trimble has that."
That geofence is critical with off-highway equipment — since big tools "leaving the farm" may cause a lot more challenges than a car or even a semitractor-trailer. And that safe reference signal, which Trimble has continued to upgrade, gave Horsch confidence in a partnership.
"[Horsch] is at the forefront of thought leadership for ag working practices," says Finlay Wood, business area director for Trimble Autonomous Solutions. "They're advancing technology in multiple areas. We're two high-tech companies changing the future."
The focus is on autonomous machines, and Horsch is already working with that tech in Germany. An autonomous seeder with its own power unit — not electric — was demonstrated in a company video. The machine has no cab, and its sole function is to plant seeds. The system can easily be tendered by a single person, and the seeder can stay at work.
"We have several different sprayers and a lot of other machines being field-tested," Horsch says. That list includes self-propelled sprayers, grain seeders up to 100 feet wide and an autonomous planter, too. Horsch says the company is focused on 40- to 100-foot, single-disk and double-disk seeders and planters, and that the work is moving along.
On the sprayer side, Horsch is bringing a new sprayer to the North American market for 2022, and it will have Trimble tech included. Horsch is hesitant about autonomous vehicle sales in the United States due to the legal situation. He notes it's very easy for someone to sue a company over its technology. "We're very cautious about the North American market," he says.
The autonomy in a sprayer, however, can boost productivity for the operator, even if the driver has to remain in the cab. It's a first step toward automating the system.
Adds Guillermo Perez-Iturbe, marketing director, Trimble Agriculture: "What you have is two technology companies at work. The collaboration of Trimble and the knowledge of an OEM [original equipment manufacturer, like Horsch] brings better definition around each one of the vehicles on the farm."
The key, Perez-Iturbe says, is working to create a whole ecosystem on the farm, so devices are aware of where they are, what they're doing and what machines might be close by to create a safer environment. "It's an additional layer of collaboration in monitoring those vehicles," he adds.
Horsch is moving ahead with automation and bringing it to markets Perez-Iturbe feels are open to the new tools. Autonomy in "human-driven" machines can also boost productivity, so North American farmers can benefit, too.
Adds Wood: "Our goal is around making the farmer's life easier, whether we're steering his vehicle in the field or controlling other elements of the implement. We want to automate parts of the task that are a pain or hassle to the farmer now."
The road to autonomy will require new partnerships. The Trimble-Horsch collaboration is making the move to driverless tech easier for the future.