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LONDON, Ohio -- Companies like Uber are already developing transportation systems that will take consumers from one place to another, all without the need for a human behind the wheel.
Could agriculture be headed in the same driverless direction, with fleets of implements laying tile, spreading fertilizer or combining corn without a farmer physically on site?
The short answer is probably.
"I'd say we're within five years [of wider-spread use of autonomous vehicles by farmers]," said Andrew Klopfenstein, an agricultural engineer in specialty machinery systems at Ohio State University's Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. " If you look right now, there are autonomous solutions out there for tractors. There's a lot of semi-autonomous solutions out there as well The big thing is actually fully autonomous."
Klopfenstein is among the OSU researchers and agriculturalists participating in this week's Farm Science Review, a large-scale farm and research expo that takes place annually near London, west of Columbus.
The three-day event draws 110,000-plus farmers, high school students and visitors, who watch equipment demonstrations and hear about the latest university research.
This year's Review includes ample discussion about precision agriculture and ways farmers are using technology to improve their crop yields.
Producers have long used global positioning and other technologies to guide combines and other equipment in the field. Though such systems essentially can put that equipment on auto pilot, farmers still have to be physically in the driver's seat.
But companies also are developing and selling some driverless agricultural implements, and orchards and other growers are already putting the units to use.
For example, Case unveiled a new autonomous concept vehicle late last month at a farm show in Iowa. The company brought the vehicle to Ohio for this week's Farm Science Review, too.
"This is a glimpse into the future," said Leo Bose, advanced farming systems marketing manager at Case.
Case's concept vehicle is cab-less; once it hits the market, there likely won't be a place for farmers to sit. Instead, they'll control the units from computers or tablets.
It's high-tech stuff, with light imaging, radar and video cameras that direct the vehicle and stop it when it encounters obstacles.
"I could be harvesting in the field and having this tractor doing some tillage work or planting," Bose said. " It goes through a pre-programmed path, and if it comes across and obstacle -- if an animal runs across its path, it would actually stop. And what that would do is give you an alert on the tablet You can pull up the camera see what's in the path of that tractor and accept it and move on or maybe go around."
Case continues to develop it autonomous vehicle line -- the unit on display this week at the Farm Science Review is a concept vehicle, still in the design stages. Bose said the company is talking to producers this week in Ohio to get ideas for how the driverless units could be put to use on their farms.
"We've been working on this technology for quite some time," he said., "So we wanted to give that glimpse of what that future could be for the producers."
But with growing use of driverless agricultural equipment comes questions of liability and regulation. Klopfenstein said there's still a fear about injuries or damage driverless vehicles could cause if not properly controlled.
"Autonomous tractors scare people," he said. "And a lot of people don't come out and see the equipment and they're unfamiliar with it. They don't realize how much technology is in the equipment. When you don't know what the equipment is, obviously there's a fear of the equipment."
But there are benefits, too, he said. At OSU, researchers are focusing some of their attention on smaller autonomous vehicles -- two- or four-row equipment.
Such smaller equipment can mean less soil compaction, which can translate into greater yields, he said. Smaller farmers could operate with single units; larger ones could use multiples.
And the equipment can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
"Instead of getting up in the morning and having a cup of coffee, you'll have a cup of coffee and look at your computer and see how much corn you planted last night," Klopfenstein said.