Four autonomous tractors are primed to change the way we farm
By Megan Wild
As the world’s population grows and the number of farmers declines, we need a solution to meet the growing demand for food and other ag commodities. Enter robot tractors, also known as autonomous vehicles.
These autonomous vehicles can take care of such tasks as weeding, seeding and tilling, while farmers can control and monitor them from another location — often on a tablet or smartphone. The robots use sensors, GPS capabilities and Internet connectivity to navigate and share information with the farmer and other equipment.
Automated tractors are known to increase farm productivity and reduce labor costs. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, a global investment banking firm, automated tractors can increase farmer revenue by more than 10 percent. Here are four options being developed.
Case IH Autonomous Concept Vehicle
Case IH first unveiled its autonomous tractor in the summer of 2016. Until recently, the company has mostly been gauging farmer interest in the robot tractor. Now, it’s ready to start testing its autonomous concept vehicle, and it’s doing so at Bolthouse Farms, one of the largest producers of carrots in North America. The testing will start with primary tillage and deep tillage.
Case IH plans to use what it learns from the Bolthouse testing phase to refine its technology and determine what features to work on next.
In collaboration with Hokkaido University, Japanese farm machinery manufacturer Yanmar has developed and is testing its own robotic tractor. The equipment is designed to work in the rice paddies that are common in Japan and other parts of Asia. Japan is pushing the development of robot tractors as the number of farmers in the country continues to fall.
The autonomous tractor features sensors, GPS capabilities and a cockpit camera. The engine control unit automatically adjusts engine speed and travel speed. Yanmar is also developing a user interface for tablets to make operation easier.
Xaver, developed by AGCO, looks even less like a traditional tractor but it can still fill one of the tractor’s typical roles. Instead of pulling a planter behind a tractor, farmers may soon be able to send out a swarm of small autonomous bots to do their planting.
Xaver started as a research project under the name Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms (MARS). It got its new name once it left the research phase and entered product development. The bots work as a group, heading out into the field and communicating with a control program. The program tells the robots where to go and receives information about their locations. It even stores the GPS coordinates of where the bots plant each seed.
Each bot can plant up to about a quarter of an acre in an hour. An estimated 15 robots could potentially replace a conventional eight-row planter. Xaver plans to offer a pilot series and possible a pay-for-use model in 2019.
Retrofitting Existing Equipment
In addition to the dedicated automated tractors being researched, developed and tested, companies are also creating technologies to help farmers automate their existing equipment. Realistically, many farmers will take this route.
Smart Ag, an Iowa-based tech company, has developed a tractor automation kit and a cloud-based platform that farmers can use to automate their existing fleet, no matter who manufactured it.
Farmers can also add smart technologies to driver-operated tractors. John Deere recently bought Blue River Technology, a California startup, which developed a robot that can identify unwanted plants such as weeds, weak crops and overcrowded plants from the back of a tractor. The robot can then spray these weeds and plants with a precisely targeted shot of herbicide. This technology could reduce herbicide use, which lowers farmers’ costs and helps protect the environment.
The farming and tech industries aren’t typically thought of as complementary, but robot tractors and other smart technologies are changing that. They’re starting to play a more important role in agriculture around the world and are making farms more productive and profitable as a result.