Autonomous Tractors - The Future of Farming?

Self-driving cars have grabbed headlines in recent months and years, and nobody will be surprised if this technology changes the face of travel in the next decade or so. What may be a bit surprising, however, is the much quieter revolution that’s been altering the farming industry for over a decade.

While Google works tirelessly to present a truly self-driving car, for decades, U.S. farmers have been using similar technologies that give them a tactical approach to planting, harvesting and maintaining their crops.

Autonomous tractors use a lot of the same advanced sensors and systems that a true self-driving vehicle would. Most tractors sold in the U.S. already include auto-steering systems that give additional control even in low-visibility situations. By implementing these advanced features in everyday farming, growers can really put the power of tech to work.

Ahead of the Curve

  • Autonomous tractors have been in development since the idea of precision agriculture came about in the 1980s. To try and save fuel and become more efficient, growers began using GPS technologies to guide their tractors across fields. As new technologies made wireless communications easier and more reliable, these first steps toward self-driving tractors laid the groundwork for the autonomous vehicles that are now widely used in the large-scale farming industry. While completely autonomous tractors have not yet been approved for use in the field, that's not stopping manufacturers from developing them.

Case IH and New Holland both introduced their new autonomous tractors at 2016 Farm Progress Show.  Case IH unveiled an autonomous tractor concept that had been developed by combining the latest in tractor engineering and technology. New Holland showcased their T8 Blue Power tractor that looks like a normal standard tractor but is an unmanned vehicle that is fully autonomous and can be monitored and controlled via a desktop computer or via a portable tablet interface.

Significant Advantages for Growers

There are many important benefits that autonomous tractor systems may make possible, including:

  • Self-driving tractors’ automatic planting systems have exceptional accuracy, resulting in seed conservation and a substantially improved return on investment (ROI) for growers.
  • The tractors’ sensors can also collect information on soil conditions, offering improved maintenance of already-planted crops and generating increased data both before and after harvest time.
  • Self-driving tractors can reduce the workload and stress on employees, providing assistance for driving and managing a wide range of tasks on the farm.

Advanced Sensors and Guidance Systems

Modern tractors can offer a wealth of information. This is especially true of autonomous models that use GPS and automatic steering to control their course. Sensors can determine:

  • The moisture level of the ground
  • The progress of planting and harvesting operations
  • Current yield
  • The amount of fuel used on a given circuit or during a certain time period.

Some self-driving tractors can even provide guidance when applying fertilizer, making sure the tires stay between the rows and away from growing plants.

More Hours in the Day

As a result of the precise control that autonomous tractors and farm equipment can allow, growers can now continue working well into the evening. Even when it’s too dark to see clearly, the sensors in place can deliver straight rows and accurate planting, which is especially important during the critical spring months. Growers can see a greater flexibility in managing time-sensitive growing tasks while reducing stress for workers. Not to mention, the guidance equipment used to navigate fields gives more accurate information during dense fog, dusty and windy weather and other conditions that can normally affect drivers’ visibility.

Connectivity Made Practical

Autonomous tractors can also be set up to serve as mobile hotspots for collecting data from sensors located throughout the field. This can provide added help for precision agriculture applications and can deliver on-the-spot information regarding a wide range of factors that can affect growing operations, including:

  • Current moisture levels in various fields
  • Expected and current yields
  • Fertilizer and pesticide application rates
  • Fuel consumption and other vehicular data

Growers can also review key data regarding price trends, commodities markets and other factors that could easily, and quickly, affect the price of their crops. Knowledge this powerful means you can make the most effective use of available funds and expect a bigger profit at the time of harvest and sale.

New Technologies Will Make a Big Impact

Many manufacturers have boarded the autonomous farming train. John Deere, for instance, who hasn't developed an autonomous tractor, has developed a number of integrated systems that can help growers manage their operations more remotely:

  • The Machine Sync system—allows a tractor to communicate directly with combines and other systems, ensuring greater efficiency and improved accuracy when harvesting crops.
  • AutoTrac Vision—consists of multiple cameras that can detect rows of crops and steer the tractor to avoid crushing growing plants.
  • The AutoTrac RowSense system—offers growers assistance in avoiding crops and ensuring full coverage for fertilizer treatments and other applications.

According to technicians at John Deere, the technologies are already in place for fully autonomous tractors. So what’s the hold-up? One of the main objections to completely trusting self-driving tractors seems to be the fear of potential accidents that could occur when the vehicles are running unattended. For now, self-driving tractors still require a human to monitor performance and speed. Innovations in the farm equipment field, however, may soon allow complete remote control of these vehicles, resulting in a major increase in productivity for growers on large-scale farming operations.