In a few years, robotic farming equipment will be able to plow and prepare soil while human farmers sleep.

That is what Hokkaido University professor Noboru Noguchi and his team are aiming for as the nation’s farmers age, with no successors in place.

The improved use of robotics in agriculture will not only reduce manual labor but will enable aging farmers to continue working and focus their time and energy on areas that require their knowledge and experience.

The related technology has been advancing in recent years. Machinery that allows a driver to sit back while it plows the field in straight lines is already on the market.

But unmanned farm machinery would require accurate positioning systems. To date, such machinery has used a combination of GPS, supplied by U.S. satellites, supplemented with data sent from ground-based stations to improve accuracy.

Depending on the lay of the land, however, the machinery occasionally strays up to 10 meters from the plotted path due to GPS systems not always providing completely accurate data.

But on June 1, Japan put its second quasi-zenith satellite, Michibiki No. 2, into orbit to improve the accuracy of the country’s GPS. Two more navigation satellites are set to be launched by the end of 2017 to provide accurate and constant data.

The quasi-zenith system ensures one of the planned four satellites will be above Japan at any one time. When the four Japanese satellites are in operation, the margin of error is expected to be narrowed to a few centimeters.

The agricultural ministry, meanwhile, adopted guidelines in March for autonomous farming machinery. The rules ban self-driving units on regular roads and limit who can enter farmland where the machines are working.

The guidelines prompted leading farm equipment manufacturer Kubota Corp. to start selling advanced self-driving tractors on a trial basis on June 1.

For now, the guidelines cover the use of self-driving machinery under on-site human supervision. But a team of researchers at the Graduate School of Agriculture at Hokkaido University is developing a tractor that can be controlled remotely.

The team is working on a robotic system that automatically observes the surrounding environment, recognizes obstacles and avoids them or halts operation if necessary.

During a recent trial, a team member maneuvered a prototype tractor via a tablet computer. The tractor was equipped with GPS receiver as well as various sensors and other devices. A buzzer went off when it recognized an obstacle and it stopped automatically.

Team leader Noguchi said a planned tractor, capable of autonomously harvesting, leveling ground and flooding rice paddies at night will become available “within a few years.”

Beginning this autumn, the university team will conduct verification tests on a fully unmanned tractor in a 950-hectare area of land in Hokkaido, taking into consideration actual restrictions such as the use of radio waves and traffic laws.

“To put agricultural robots to work, it is important for the people involved, including researchers, engineers and farmers, to allow a process of trial and error to play out,” Noguchi said.

Noguchi’s team is going a step further in a project that will allow farm machines to analyze weather and soil data so they can predict disease and pest infestations. Further, the ability to predict crop yields would enable refined operations such as distributing more fertilizer where needed.

The use of such detailed data can help avoid the wasteful use of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals, improve the efficiency of operations, enhance the safety of agricultural products and contribute to the protection of the environment.

To be sure, automation cannot take over all farming operations.

Shigeru Someya, a large-scale rice grower in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, said that while advances in agricultural equipment have made farming more efficient, it has led to a situation where farmers no longer take good care of paddies by themselves.

“I’ve been taught that rice grows (best) when they hear the footsteps of human beings,” Someya said. “Looking over (rice paddies on foot) is indispensable.”

The key to the future of Japan’s agriculture may be combining the knowledge of farmers like Someya and farming technology — artificial intelligence that analyses and learns from a huge volume of data, and the introduction of robots.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.