Autonomous vehicles that will allow us to readily access a driverless service to take us wherever we need to go are being developed and will eventually be available. Presumably this will be more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly than owning our own automobiles.

However, having traveled around the world and rather frequently to Sub-Saharan Africa, I’m certain we are decades away from that reality given the rapid increase of car ownership and the societal status symbol it represents. No matter the mind-boggling traffic jams in cities like Accra, Lagos, Kampala, Nairobi, Mombasa and Addis Ababa with estimated mega city average driving speed of 8 miles per hour, people buy access to the mobility they can afford, whether it is on the back of a “boda boda” (bicycle or motorcycle taxi), in a “tuk tuk” (auto rickshaw), a van taxi, an Uber, or their own vehicle.

In most of the world, vehicles will likely continue to be driven by humans because many of us enjoy driving our own cars, while for others it provides employment and income. Automobile manufacturers are horrified by the idea of producing generic looking, driverless vehicles but nevertheless are working feverishly preparing for just such a future, as are truck and tractor manufacturers.

It is anyone’s guess how long it will take for driverless cars and trucks to take over the roads. What is certain is that autonomous vehicles are here to stay. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is fast-developing and drives automation technologies. It is estimated that autonomous vehicles will likely alter 2.2 million to 3.1 million existing U.S. jobs in the coming decades. This estimate includes the 1.7 million jobs driving tractor-trailers, which are the heavy rigs that dominate U.S. highways and move the majority of goods across the country.

The pace of automation is relentless. Experts indicate automation is happening 10 times faster and at 300 times the scale of the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century. This means current disruptions are faster and “more intensive” than anything we have experienced in the past. Advances in machine learning and the increasing availability of big data and enhanced computation power are providing computers with unprecedented capabilities such as the ability to accurately recognize images.

Automation will continue to displace workers from a range of occupations, including ones in manufacturing and transportation as a result of deployment of robots and autonomous vehicle technology. AI will create new types of jobs and opportunities to make up for some of the ones that will be lost. In rural areas, where most grain handling and processing facilities are located, and where grain is produced, the lack of labor will continue to drive interest in automation and autonomous transportation options.

This article, the first in a series on grain elevators of the future, will focus on two key technologies and innovations that will affect the grain elevator of the future: information and communication technologies (ICT), and autonomous vehicles and transportation. Future articles will discuss automatic grain receiving, sampling and grading; real-time monitoring of inventory and quality; and lights out and hygienic operations.

Questions corporate and cooperative grain handling companies should be asking are: How rapidly can they prepare for innovative technologies to remain competitive? How many employees will be needed to operate their facilities going forward? What knowledge and skills will future employees need? What continuing education and training will employees need?

Information and communication technologies

ICT is affecting the way we live and work as individuals and as societies. ICT has revolutionized banking in Africa where many individuals have mobile phones, but few have traditional bank accounts. Mobile financial services delivered via cell phones have made cell phone service providers the de facto bankers across Sub-Saharan Africa. My Kenyan colleagues shared that instead of using credit cards that are services offered by traditional banks, they use their cell phones to purchase items, pay their bills, and send money to their family members. Groups of farmers are getting together and loan each other money (micro credits) through their cell phone accounts so they can finance each other’s seed and fertilizer purchases. This is possible because of rapidly developing cell phone networks and data transmission capacity around the world. At times I have personally experienced better access to data services on my smart phone while traveling in rural areas of Africa than in some rural areas of the Midwestern U.S.

Similar to the need for infrastructure investment, rural areas in the United States lack high speed broadband access. A recent article in The New York Times noted that when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1936 to provide loans and grants to rural electric and telephone companies, within 20 years “65% of farmers had a telephone and 96% of them had electricity.”

In 2017, 30% of rural Americans (or 19 million people) and 21% of farms still lacked basic broadband access. Those who have broadband access generally have slow download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of one megabit. According to the article, those speeds are “far below the current definition of broadband, which is download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of three megabits.” This has created a digital divide between rural and urban areas that needs to be overcome in order for U.S. grain producers and handlers to become fully connected and competitive to take advantage of ICT capacities.

High speed ICT is needed to take advantage of big data science, which universities and companies have been gearing up for. For example, tools such as Bayer/Monstanto’s Climate FieldView are intended to “allow farmers make data driven decisions to maximize return on every acre. Through advanced sensing technology on drones that fly over fields as well as sensors installed on tractors, field equipment, and combine harvesters, data is collected, stored, analyzed and can then be visualized. The impact of agronomic decisions can be monitored and measured not just field by field and row by row but literally plant by plant. Field and plant variability can be managed by building customized fertility and seeding plans and implementing them with site-specific, variable rate application equipment to optimize yield and maximize return. Such advanced variable rate agronomic services often are contracted by farmers to external providers, including cooperatives that have agronomy and grain divisions.

As a result, a farmer-owned cooperative should be in a strategic position to help producers integrate their field application and production data with grain origination, quality and marketing data across their in-house divisions.

The commercialization and rapid adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for civilian applications is providing a revolutionary tool that also depends on ICT. Drones allow farmers and allied service providers to acquire data on all aspects of production. The data drone sensors collect and transfer require faster and faster data transmission speeds. For example, just seconds after using my credit card during a recent trip to Kenya, the amount I charged showed up on my smart phone credit card app. If I had any doubt I was being charged the wrong amount, I could have rejected the charge in real time. That is the kind of rural broadband speed needed by grain producers and handlers to utilize ICT capabilities in real time.

Autonomous vehicles and transportation

I believe the business case for autonomous vehicles is at least as great, if not greater, in rural areas than in cities. Think of the many hours people spend driving on rural highways with little traffic. How much better could time be utilized if “drivers” were able to utilize their vehicles as mobile offices instead of having to operate the vehicle? How much more refreshed and attentive might a maintenance person be when they arrive at the job site after a 3-hour ride in an autonomous vehicle? And what about the shortage, especially of temporary labor, during the planting and harvesting seasons?

That too will make it attractive for farmers to adopt autonomous vehicle technology and send their grain trucks from the field to the grain elevator without having to rely on a human driver. One company is already field testing autonomous grain shuttles that pull alongside the combine harvester and take harvested grain to the grain truck parked alongside the field’s edge.

It is conceivable that combine harvesters and autonomous grain trucks will be networked with the grain receiving operation of the local grain elevator. This would allow for timed arrival of trucks on-site, unloading them and returning them to the field in a manner that optimizes the entire harvesting system for all farmers that intend to deliver to their local elevator. This has the potential to make seasonal grain harvests more coordinated, predictive and efficient.

During the off-season, on-demand delivery from on-farm storage facilities could be coordinated by the local grain company as part of marketing plans, real-time stored grain quality monitoring, and opportunity to load 110-car unit trains in a more timely manner. Autonomous trucks could be sent by the grain elevator to on-farm storage locations to pick up grain from overhead load-out silos that are intermittently filled by an automation and control system that networks the on-farm storage location with that of the originating grain elevator. That would be the same automation system that would allow the location manager to originate and pick up grain from a company-owned satellite facility. Monitoring of the remote processes would take place via cameras and eliminate the need for an operator to be present at the pick-up site.

Conceivably, not only gravity-unload silos could be emptied autonomously, but so could flat-bottom warehouses and outdoor grain piles where autonomous front-end loaders pick up grain and transfer it into driverless trucks that take their loads to the designated receiving pit. The cycle would be repeated until the task is completed or stopped by the remote operator in charge.

Autonomous vehicles already are being utilized in the mining industry from which bulk materials handling and transport technology is usually adapted for and by the grain handling industry. A Brazilian mining company reportedly has trucks with a capacity of 240 tonnes hauling iron ore on roads of a large mining area without operators in the cabins. The trucks are controlled by AI-based computer systems utilizing GPS and radars to move efficiently and safely between the loading and unloading areas. The company expects to obtain an increase of around 15% in equipment lifespan due to optimized and less abusive use. Fuel consumption and maintenance costs are expected to decrease by 10% while the average speed of trucks is expected to increase. Improved fuel economy is expected to also result in lower greenhouse gas and particulate emissions.

Therefore, the use of autonomous vehicles in grain harvesting, handling and transportation is not a question of whether it will happen but how quickly it will be adopted by farmers. The challenge for the grain handling industry is whether they will embrace the business opportunity to be a facilitator and coordinator of autonomous vehicle technology for their farmer customers, or whether they will allow third party service providers to profit instead.