Agriculture is changing rapidly. Growing populations put increasing demands on output, while rising labour costs and labour shortages put pressures on output. The result is often consolidation in the industry where small farms are squeezed out, leaving more and more larger-scale operations in their place.

This has long-lasting and significant impacts on not just the agricultural industry, but also on rural communities and the livelihoods of those who live in them.

Technology is changing farming too, with new equipment and platforms becoming increasingly available that drive efficiencies, improve productivity, and enhance the quality of food produced.

This technology includes automation equipment and autonomous farming vehicles. These are being developed by both traditional agricultural companies and ambitious start-ups seeking to innovate in an industry in need of change.

The advances being made in the development of these new technological solutions is incredible. Agricultural industry stalwart John Deere, for example, began investing in autonomous technologies back in 1991. In terms of start-ups, the growth over recent years has been significant. In 2007, USD $200 million was invested in agriculture technology start-ups. In 2017, however, that figure had risen to more than USD $1.5 billion.

Solutions Converging but They’re Not Universal

One trend that is emerging, however, is that many of the automation equipment and autonomous vehicle solutions that are being developed are designed for use on large scale farms. In many respects, this is understandable – larger farming operations will have the infrastructure, staff, and resources to invest in large-scale solutions.

At E-Cubers, we’re taking a different approach.

Fionn Merze is studying for a masters in Mechatronics at the University of Limerick. He, along with other UL master’s students, is working on a project in conjunction with E-Cubers on the development of an autonomous farming solution that will be suitable for small-scale farms, particularly those in the Border, Midlands, and West (BMW) region of Ireland.

Fionn said: “Agricultural vehicles have become saturated across the market, and manufacturers have tried to differentiate their products since then by increasing the size of their tractors, increasing the complexity.

“We’re trying to develop equipment that’s going to fit this target market [farms in the BMW region] better than anything that is currently on offer.”

Developing Autonomous Farming Vehicles and Automation Solutions for Farms in the BMW Region

When embarking on the Feirm CHILSTE project with E-Cubers, the UL students recognised the need for automation on small farms in the BMW region. Farmers in the BMW region increasingly have another job, meaning they only farm part-time.

This means they need another source of labour for the farm. Human labour is not always available and it’s often prohibitively expensive. Plus, the current technological solutions available on the market are too large, complex, and expensive for the typical small farm in Ireland.

Technology is still the solution, however, provided it is developed specifically for the types of farm you find in the BMW region.

For the UL master’s students and the E-Cubers team, the proof of concept they are working on is called Oibrí Chlisté. It is an autonomous farming vehicle and platform designed to reliably get the job done, but that is cost-effective for small farmers while also being capable of handling the unique environment of fields, tracks, and lanes in Ireland’s BMW rural area.