There has been much discussion regarding autonomous vehicles and their impact on the economic sector such as automotive, transport, logistics, ICT services, and many others. However, although self-driving cars are a trend of the future, autonomous machinery is already a reality. The agriculture and mining industries were early adopters of this technology. Different from self-driving cars, such machinery does not have to deal with high variability within the operating environment, and there is almost no regulation in comparison with self-driving cars. As a result, the first autonomous machinery to enter the market has set the course for different levels of automation. On the one hand, autonomous machinery is set to solve employee shortages, improve efficiency, and provide substantial cost savings. On the other hand, it will result in massive restructurings and will change the way we think about our economy.
New technologies do not come without social and economic challenges
Fully autonomous agricultural and mining machinery does not come without associated economic and social difficulties. The new type of farming and mining will favour larger companies, as smaller ones may lack the knowledge or capital required for investment. In addition, the gap between agricultural and mining development among countries and companies may widen due to uneven access to technologies. The introduction of new technologies will also likely result in considerable job losses. Yet despite these challenges, autonomous machinery can address the problem of employee shortages, reduce costs, and increase efficiency for the sectors that implement them.
Autonomous mining solutions are already in place
The mining industry is taking the lead in implementation of self-driving machinery. The autonomous machinery offers mining companies greater efficiency and savings, reduction of human error, and in general a safer operational environment. Caterpillar Inc is the first company to have made substantial investment in autonomous mining machinery and already has a fully self-driving mining truck fleet in two mining sites in Western Australia and one in Arizona, since 2015. The mines are run by 793F CMD trucks that automatically travel where and when they have to, position themselves for loading, and then move away to their assigned dump locations – all without human control. Meanwhile, Volvo launched a fully autonomous truck to be used in underground mines at the end of 2016.
Self-driving machinery is expected to change the face of agriculture
Farming is a low margin, commoditised business, and agricultural companies primarily compete on cost. Autonomous agricultural machinery and other technologies achieve greater efficiency and optimise the use of land, seed, fertiliser, chemicals, manpower, and can better utilise good weather opportunities. Many countries, like Australia and US are suffering from declining agricultural productivity, with an ageing workforce in the farming sector and as people leave rural areas – issues that could be remedied by further industry automation and the use of autonomous machinery.Some of the key agricultural machinery companies have already introduced autonomous machinery prototypes. John Deere began to develop self-driving machinery as early as in 1999 and is considered a pioneer in such technology. Although the company does not yet have completely commercialised autonomous vehicles, it already sells auto-steering and other self-guidance technologies to more than 100 countries. Taking things one step further, CHN Industrial premiered its fully autonomous tractor technology in the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Boone. The new tractor allows remote placement, monitoring and control of operations.
Current autonomous machinery solutions are still quite limited as they require some kind of human interaction, decision making, and planning. Many companies have yet to embrace the autonomous concept, or only produce machinery on a very small scale. However, autonomous machinery can provide vast benefits. As a result, production and demand for such solutions is set to accelerate in the near future, following the real solutions established in agricultural and mining sectors.