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The Future of the American Farm: Robots?


New applications for automated machines and cloud-based technology could help farmers increase yields and cut costs.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Last month, CNBC's John Carney explained over a series of articles why the "Farm Labor Crisis" wasn't actually a crisis. His arguments can be summed up as follows: Farmers are making more from farming, and paying less for labor, which, by the textbook definition, means there isn't a farm labor shortage.

Despite the presence of fewer farm laborers reported in regions like California, and reports that in some places fewer farm laborers meant crops were left to rot on the vine, farmers stills saw profits rise 35.5% to a record-breaking $134.8 billion in 2011. The USDA is expecting profits to be larger in 2012.

A new generation of advanced farm technology being developed and, in some cases, already in place, seeks to drive these record profits even higher by optimizing farm efficiency. Utilizing precision robotics, extensive databases, and wireless delivery, farmers will be able to rely less on labor and more on profits.

Here, Minyanville takes a look at some developing technology that's set to roll out the barn door in the near future, and the companies you might be surprised to learn have a green thumb involved.

Kinze Autonomous Harvest System

One part combine, one part tractor, one part grain cart, one part robot: The Kinze Autonomous Harvest System had its first public demonstration last month. Iowa-based Kinze -- still privately held after 47 years as a leading planter and grain cart manufacturer -- has been hard at work on the world's first "driverless" row-crop harvesting equipment.

From a Kinze Manufacturing press release:

The Kinze Autonomy Project is designed to reduce the need for skilled operators by taking the human element out of the tractor cab. Kinze will market this technology to help growers increase their productivity by allowing them to focus their time and attention elsewhere while performing cursory monitoring of the Kinze autonomous equipment.

Check it out in action, here.

Integrated computers and sensors, in tune with GPS, allow operators to direct the system outside the cab via a handheld tablet.

Todd Painter, owner of farm machinery retailer Painter Farm Equipment, told agricultural news source AGWeb that he believes the market is primed for products like the Kinze autonomous harvester:

Ten years ago we were skeptical about GPS, automated steering, clutches on the planter, and other technologies...But those have been highly accepted by our customers. We have 80% or more of our customers using GPS technologies on their farm. Technology is here to stay, and this autonomous system is the next thing to come.

The Kinze system is powered by software solution and service provider Jaybridge Robotics, whose client list includes Honeywell (NYSE:HON) and the US Army.

John Deere (NYSE:DE) introduced a similar automated system last year. "Machine Sync" allows a combine operator to coordinate the location of his or her grain cart and tractor via a local wireless network dubbed "Machine Communication Radio." The function is very similar to the Kinze System, although Machine Sync, unlike the Kinze system, still requires the operator to remain in the cab.

Kinze has said it hopes to begin a limited release of its Automated Harvest System this fall.
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