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Your Drone Needs a Heart: Why the Future of Autonomy is All About People

“What am I going to do in my tractor if I don’t have to steer it?”

Although it was more than 20 years ago, Joel Kaczynski recalls the moment as if it were yesterday. It was early in his career and Joel was managing the fertilizer plant in the small farming community of Mantador, 40 miles south of Fargo. Joel worked with all kinds of growers but has a particular memory of one of his grower customers talking about “this thing called AutoTrac.”

Based on what Joel knew about AutoTrac, it had the potential to drive great results for growers, but only if it didn’t drive them away first. This grower was like many others Joel worked with, one who genuinely enjoyed operating equipment. He was not resistant to the new technology opportunity because he didn’t believe Joel’s claims that it would increase efficiency. He was concerned the technology would take away this part of his job he enjoyed so much. The grower took a leap of faith.

Fast-forward a few months, he was reporting happy employees who were less stressed, not to mention tillage passes that were straight as an arrow. Best of all, Joel was reassured in his prediction that the grower would still be spending his days in the tractor. While he was no longer steering, the grower was now able to focus on making sure implements were working properly and he had time to sit back and simply observe the crop.

An Autonomous Nation Still Needs Us Humans

AutoTrac was one of the earliest examples of precision agriculture and even a first taste of autonomy. Decades later, the latest in autonomous agriculture was abuzz at the Grand Farm’s final event of the year, Autonomous Nation, held in September.

As a speaker at the event, Joel had the opportunity to reflect on his long career in ag as well as provide an overview of the more recent and upcoming autonomous advancements from John Deere. Today, Joel leads a team the specializes in precision ag for RDO Equipment Co., a dealership representing Deere alongside other leading manufacturers Joel and his team focus on helping growers understand how to harness technology to reduce waste and boost field productivity.

While Joel and his team are certainly well versed in the systems and technology that power new types of equipment, they also know just as much about the “X-Factor” embedded into any innovation people.

“It’s really the people behind this making it all work,” Joel says.

Evolving Roles

Autonomous farming cannot exist without people. It is a bit of a paradox – the entire concept of autonomy is designed around removing the human element, right? Tractors drive themselves. UAVs scout crops without anyone setting foot in the field. Grain carts follow the combine on their own.

The hesitancy to adopt precision agriculture technology range from grower to grower, everything from the cost to if it will work. But when looking closer at autonomy, another common fear is that it will replace jobs, not enhance them.

The truth is, as autonomy advances, people become more important. The role of the farmworker and agronomist does not go away, and the grower will never be removed from the equation. It is the roles, skillsets and education required to support agriculture that will evolve–and already has changed.

Andy Luikens, RDO recruiting program manager, speaks about this dynamic regularly and how it has dramatically shaped the career requirements and advancement opportunities for service professionals. From RDO’s perspective as a dealer partner, Andy shares the ways he has seen roles evolve alongside the technology and create new opportunities that did not exist years ago.

“Some of these new roles we have at RDO range from a centralized team of technology experts that support technicians to those who work more directly with growers in the field,” he said. As an example of the latter, Joel’s precision ag team is focused on making sure the customer knows not only how to use the technology but also how to use it in a way that meets their goals.”

The Essential Element

Joel’s point of view paints a positive picture about the opportunity of new roles on the farm while serving as a reminder that people will still need to be involved.

A tillage tool may be able to cover an entire field on its own. But a person has to write the tillage prescription that allows the machine to do the job.

A system may collect and share endless, valuable machine data. But a person has to interpret and analyze that data, then use it to make decisions.

A UAV can scout hundreds of acres in the time it would take a person to do one. But that person plays a valuable role in assessing the information and advise based on it.

And let’s not forget that every machine, autonomous or not, needs service and care. The demand for equipment technicians has never been greater, as the human element is essential for troubleshooting, repairs, and routine maintenance.

Farming equipment and methods have evolved a lot since a blacksmith named John Deere invented the first steel plow in 1837. They have made even more strides since GPS launched the first automated systems in the 90s.

Even when farming reaches the point of driverless tractors, and systems and software doing nearly all the work in the field, Joel’s simple words are an important reminder of the one element that has not yet changed and never will: “None of this happens without people.”

Visit to learn more about precision agriculture technology. Find informative articles, watch helpful videos, and listen to RDO’s Agriculture Technology Podcast.

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