Jason Jelinek, a software technical manager at John Deere Electronics Solutions, has parlayed his more than two decades of embedded software engineering experience into commercializing controls and sensing technologies for rugged/harsh environments, including agriculture/off-road and aerospace. During his keynote at the upcoming FLEX and MEMS & Sensors Technical Congress 2019, February 18-21 in Monterey, Calif., Jelinek will address the driving need for advanced sensing technologies that will fuel the continued growth of autonomy in agriculture.
SEMI’s Maria Vetrano asked Jelinek to help FLEX/MSTC attendees understand his vision of autonomy in agriculture, which heavily leverages advanced sensing technologies to help farmers master equipment logistics, handle vehicle- and fleet-level operational efficiency, and manage the entire lifecycle of crops.
SEMI: Did autonomy in agriculture start with autonomous equipment, such as tractors and combines?
JELINEK: Automation, the first step on the road to autonomy, has been occurring in agriculture for a long time. Over the past 100 years, automation has dramatically reduced manual effort and simplified jobs in farming, allowing operators to focus more on administrative and other aspects of their work.
The evolution of the combine is a good example of automation in agriculture. Long ago farmers would use a scythe to cut down the crop before bundling or stacking it up. Later they would manually thresh and winnow the crop to get the grain. Over time, we developed windrowers to cut the grain, threshing machines to separate the grain from the chaff, and winnowing machines to get only the grain. Combines now “combine” all those steps to go from grain on the stalk in the field to grain in the hopper. One person in a combine can do the work that once required many people and animals — all in a much shorter timeframe. We are now looking at automating harvesting to maximize yield and reduce fuel consumption.
The AUTOTRAC feature on John Deere machines is a recent example. AUTOTRAC divides a field into rows based upon the parameters of the machine in operation, supporting hands-free driving with very high accuracy. It allows consistent, accurate rows for tilling, planting, crop treatment and harvesting, saving considerable time, improving overall quality and freeing the operator to do other work while in the vehicle.
The Exact Emerge and Section Control features (which also use AUTOTRAC) will spur greater future autonomy. Control over both the seed spacing (Exact Emerge) and when the machine drops seeds (Section Control) prevents overseeding and provides the right seed-spacing for optimal crop production.
As we look to the future, sustained growth in automation of jobs will enable the development of fully autonomous equipment. Currently, however, skilled operators are still closely involved in job management and execution. To realize greater autonomy, we will need machines that make the decisions once made by people.
SEMI: How will autonomy in agriculture change the ways that we grow and harvest food — and even affect when we sell it?
JELINEK: Autonomy will lead to more efficient production, reducing fuel, fertilizer, herbicide and water requirements. It will also enable fewer people to do more of the work.
Let’s start with conditions that are hard, even impossible, to control: weather and staffing.
While farming is still tied to the weather — and will remain so for some time — more efficient operations will allow tilling, planting, spraying and harvesting of fields to occur in shorter time windows that more easily match conducive weather conditions.
There is also a human-resource issue: The agricultural industry must compensate for population decline in the rural areas where farmers operate. Doing more with less is essential for agriculture to continue to meet the rising food and clothing demands of the world’s population.
SEMI: To what degree will we see artificial intelligence in autonomous agricultural systems?
JELINEK: While autonomous systems had their start at the vehicle level, they will one day move to the entire fleet, providing suggestions on when the owner should execute operations. Autonomous systems may also help owners to decide when to store or sell crops, based on market conditions, operating costs and desired margin levels. That’s the initial level of artificial intelligence that I foresee.
SEMI: How can sensing improve autonomy in agriculture?
JELINEK: The challenges we face in agriculture are many, but technology will help us meet them. We must transfer responsibility for operations and decision-making from the skilled operator to the intelligent machine. Through increased use of sensing, we can gather large amounts of data, which autonomous agricultural systems will process, communicate and interpret to streamline jobs and boost agricultural production.
SEMI: What would you like FLEX/MSTC attendees to take away from your presentation?
JELINEK: I would like FLEX/MSTC attendees to understand the environment in which agricultural sensors need to operate. We need sensing solutions that will survive and thrive in rugged, outdoor variable environments to support the automation that will fuel autonomy.
I would also like to engage suppliers in the application of current technology to meet our sensing needs.
Jason Jelinek will present Autonomy in Agriculture at FLEX/MSTC on Tuesday, February 19 at 9:00 am.
Maria Vetrano is a public relations consultant at SEMI.