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How Autonomy Amplifies the Boundless Benefits of Sustainability

Autonomous advancements reveal more layers of sustainability through efficiency than have been achievable before. Trimble Autonomy recently asked Dietmar Grimm, Trimble VP of corporate strategy and sustainability solutions, to field some common questions about what autonomous capabilities can mean for sustainability, which has become a critical component of just about any industry’s business plan. This is part 1 of our discussion, which uses ag scenarios. Part 2 will focus more on Construction.

TA: How do autonomous machines contribute to sustainability? 
DG: That depends on the industry, but generally, they do it by driving efficiencies, reducing fuel use and carbon emissions, using fewer inputs like chemicals, and enabling end users to do more with less – ultimately reducing or eliminating costs. It’s not just the environmental or “green” benefits, but also the fiscal sustainability they provide to industry players that make autonomy profitable. OEMs are in a position to unlock a full slate of efficiencies and productivity for their customers that also serves future generations. 

TA: How are some of the primary features of autonomous technology sustainable? 
DG: Autonomous machines are able to move in a more controlled, coordinated, and precise way than humans can — particularly when complemented by Trimble’s precise positioning technology. So in farming, for example, we can reduce overlap, which reduces the number of passes, gets work done faster, and cuts down on time spent in the fields. All these equate to less crop damage from tires, less fuel, less water and fewer chemicals used, just to name a few. Benefits like these are sustainable not only for the customer, but for the planet, by reducing greenhouse gasses and the overall draw on natural resources.

TA: Can you give an example of an autonomous solution that reduces ecological footprint? 
DG: Overarching technologies like path planning, speed control and auto steering on heavy equipment tend to speak for themselves, but a specialized product like Trimble’s WeedSeeker® 2 provides a good sustainability example from ag. This sprayer technology enables pinpoint application of chemicals onto weeds only, reducing the amount of chemical applied by up to 90%. Operating at up to 25 mph on a vehicle with a 100-foot boom, the task automation on this system enables farmers to cover far more acres in a day with optimal accuracy than a human, making it much more cost effective. By reducing input costs, herbicide cost and use, run time and maintenance, this system enables a more sustainable operation, adding to a farmer’s profit margin. Spot spraying also means fewer chemicals leach into the soil, surrounding water systems, and into our food supply. 

TA: How does “smart farming” factor into the larger sustainability picture?
DG: Decreasing resource inputs saves users money and labor, and easy access to reliable data built into the process makes identifying areas for adjustments simple, integrating variables like weather forecasts for optimum yield projections. Data mining and predictive analytics will become a norm that make it easy for farmers to control variables like never before, empowering them to make better decisions, maximize resources and optimize yields — with far less time and effort required. This added productivity enhances profitability, and allows them to focus on bigger-picture plans and decisions. In many ways, farmers are increasingly recognized as our sustainability heroes because, as stewards of the land and our food supply, a sustainable farmer not only helps the planet but also ensures we feed the world.

TA: What sustainability benefits are realized as a result of addressing or neutralizing some of the primary challenges today’s industries are facing?
DG: Take farmers for example, who need to find better ways to keep up with increasing food demand. Autonomy enables them to leverage their resources to meet the needs of a growing population while staying profitable. Autonomous solutions help minimize food waste, maximize crops, and relieve the effects of labor shortages plaguing agriculture, construction and other industries. Labor workforces are shrinking, and aging… and younger workers are losing interest in strenuous work. Autonomy-enabled machinery takes the fatigue-factor out of the equation, and makes it easier for lesser-skilled operators to handle repetitive tasks and spend extended time in the cab, maximizing productivity. This means farmers spend fewer hours behind the wheel, freeing them up to plan sustainable harvests and profits. That’s all sustainability.

TA: How will sustainability evolve as we progress from partial autonomy to full autonomy? 
DG: We’ll be looking at even greater environmental efficiencies, particularly as industries are able to take advantage of “swarm” solutions with advanced interoperability, utilizing multiple smaller machines that are more easily electrified. In the future, look to larger machines to call others out onto a worksite as they are needed, taking productivity to even greater heights. And when the cab eventually goes away on many machines, they will be smaller, with a reduced carbon footprint — made even more green by not requiring air-conditioned cabs. And these cabless machines will be safer as many worksite injuries come from entering and exiting large machines. Sustainability benefits will keep growing over time.

Sustainability through autonomy is painted with a broader brush than meets the eye, offering an array of tangible benefits for industry players, as well as the planet, as they embark upon Industry 4.0. Look to Trimble Autonomy to provide a sustainable path from where you are to where you want to go, a commitment that is being embraced companywide as part of our ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement and a net-zero future. Read about that here

Look for Part 2 of our sustainability Q&A with Dietmar Grimm in the following weeks.