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Autonomous Tractors and Self-Driving Farm Equipment

Listening to people talk in ‘Murica these days, and you’d think they lived back in the stone ages. Everyone’s somehow been wronged, everyone’s oppressed by someone else, life’s unfair, opportunity only exists for those who are willing to work hard, the Gini coefficient is out of whack (look it up), the country is polarized to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the civil war, and the list of things to complain about goes on. While some of these things are certainly worth complaining about, the fact is, people around the globe have never been so well off as poverty levels continue to plummet.

Poverty distribution thresholds

One reason for the plummeting levels of poverty is that food availability is increasing and food costs are decreasing thanks to technology. Of course, that’s just another thing to complain about, as people continue to protest – and perhaps rightfully so – things like Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) without considering that this technology has helped decrease poverty. In response to these protests, technology saves the day – yet again – with companies like Cibus and Indigo Ag taking it a step further and using technology to give us the benefits of GMO without all the bad stuff. It’s a constant battle to do things better without pissing anyone off.

Autonomous Tractors and Self-Driving Farm Equipment

When it comes to farming, there is a seemingly endless list of things to improve upon. If we conceptualize what farming might look like in a fully-optimized state, we might think of a farm that has completely removed the human element from the equation. Why wouldn’t we use artificial intelligence and robotics to create the perfect farm with every single efficiency realized with the only variable being the weather?

Farm equipment automation

Source: Case IH

The most obvious objection a farmer might raise to the idea of fully autonomous farming is the need for a human to operate farming equipment. That made us wonder, what, if anything, is being done to make farming equipment fully autonomous? Turns out, quite a bit. We first dabbled in this space in an article we published a few years back titled 7 Autonomous Vehicles that Aren’t Automobiles where we looked at the notion of autonomous tractors. Now, let’s take a look at some companies working on autonomous tractors and self-driving farm equipment.

Who Are the Players?

It’s important to note that autonomous farming is a theme that extends to all farming equipment manufacturers. Last year, the Australian government studied the six largest tractor manufacturers (i.e. original equipment manufacturers, OEMs) which included John Deere, Case New Holland, AGCO, CLAAS, Same Deutz-Fahr, and Kubota. The informative study is worth a read, and includes some cool information like this comparison matrix:

Developments In Autonomous Tractors

Source: Grains Research and Development Corporation

The key takeaway from that report is that John Deere and CNH Global are leading when it comes to making tractors fully autonomous, with both companies having released working prototypes to gauge interest along with actual implementations in the field today. Let’s take a look at what these two companies have been getting up to.

The Case IH Autonomous Tractor

Click for company websiteWith over 175 years in the field, Case IH is the world’s second largest brand of agricultural equipment behind John Deere and a subsidiary of CNH Global N.V. In 2016, they showed the world what’s possible with autonomous vehicles when they unveiled a fully-functioning autonomous tractor platform as a means to spur discussions with farmers around the potential for self-driving tractors. Since then, they’ve begun moving forward with implementation and are working with one of the largest carrot producers in North America, Bolthouse Farms, on real-world testing of autonomous tractors. Don’t expect to see anything futuristic-looking like their initial concept. Instead, Case IH is using “a small fleet of autonomous Steiger Quadtrac tractors pulling a True-Tandem disk harrow or Ecolo-Tiger disk ripper” according to an article by SuccessfulFarming. In other words, it’s going to look something like this – just without the human:

Steiger Quadtrac tractor pulling disk ripper

Source: Case IH

It makes a whole lot more sense to retrofit existing farm equipment with autonomous capabilities so that everyone feels a whole lot less intimidated by the whole thing.

The New Holland Autonomous Tractor

New Holland is a global brand of agricultural machinery produced by CNH Industrial, the same company that owns Case IH. While the name may imply that the company is run by the fun-loving Dutch, it’s actually headquartered in Italy. (It’s often said that while the Greeks may have invented love, the Italians were the first ones to apply it to women.) The farming equipment brand is known for all kinds of innovative products, like the Energy Independent farm which uses a hydrogen-powered tractor. Like Case IH, they also debuted their NHDrive autonomous technology in 2016 and have since partnered with E. & J. Gallo Winery, the largest family-owned winery in the world, to begin trialing the technology on T4.110F vineyard tractors like the one seen below:

The New Holland NHDrive Autonomous Tractor

Source: Trade Farm Machinery

The autonomous solution is applicable to the brand’s entire offering of tractors, so it’s all about taking existing equipment and allowing it to operate sans human. When it comes to leaders in this space though, we need to look towards what the world’s biggest manufacturer of farming equipment is getting up to.

Is John Deere Already Autonomous?

The world’s biggest manufacturer of farm equipment, John Deere, made the news recently with their autonomous electric tractor that comes with a 3,280 foot extension cord. While that almost sounds like a joke, what certainly isn’t a joke is just how serious John Deere takes the idea of self-driving farm equipment. A decade ago, John Deere made it known that they were moving towards autonomy with the announcement of iTEC Pro, a system that enabled farm equipment to operate autonomously using GPS coordinates. An article by DesignNews, which talked about the technology, quoted John Deere as saying autonomous tractors are “the next great frontier for the ag equipment market.”

Google didn’t lead the self-driving vehicle revolution. John Deere did.” was the title of a 2015 article in the Washington Post which talks about how John Deere already has auto-steering and other self-guidance technology in more than 100 countries around the globe. Their range of “guidance products” all demonstrate varying degrees of human involvement, some talking about how they can “reduce driver fatigue.” Still, others are skeptical that John Deere might be close to full autonomy with an article by Quartz last year stating, “After trying to build self-driving tractors for more than 20 years, John Deere has learned a hard truth about autonomy.” The supporting evidence is that all the John Deere tractors still require a human to operate after 20 years, therefore it’s tougher than it looks. Maybe that fully autonomous tractor with a 1-kilometer long extension cord is what we’ve all been waiting for.

While both John Deere and CNH Industrial may have the lead when it comes to putting autonomous tractors out in the field, there are some aftermarket solutions that are making progress as well – like our next company.

Aftermarket Solutions

The next company we’re going to talk about may not sound very Dutch, but they are in fact Dutch. So is the farmer who has been testing the autonomous tractor technology on his farm in Australia, a man by the name of Gerrit Kurstjens. An article by Future Farming published this past March talk about his experience with a driverless tractor that’s already sprayed 24,700 acres with a spot spray rig and not a human in sight. The tractor, a Fendt 936, is equipped with an autonomic system from PROBOTIQ (a subsidiary of Precision Makers) and can be seen below:

A Fendt autonomous tractor

Source: Future Farming – Credit: Mark Pasveer

The pilot worked out so well that he’s already ordered two more driverless tractors so that he can work three of them next season. So far, we’ve talked about tractor companies doing their own research and development, but here we have a case of a third-party developing the technology instead. There are others out there, and we may look at some in a follow-up article. At the moment though, we think that it’s the big farming equipment manufacturers that have taken the lead here. Of course, we also need to consider companies that are creating entirely new robotic farming machines to replace humans.

Autonomous Vehicles or Robots?

It’s not just tractors that are being developed to do things autonomously. Last year, we wrote about 6 Agriculture Robot Startups for Farming, an article which looked at robots that pick fruit, pull weeds, and move plants around. This begs the questions of where we draw the line between autonomous vehicles and robots. So far, the autonomous solutions we’ve covered are bolt-on. If autonomy is to really take a hold and disrupt farming, it can’t just take the form of futuristic tractors trickling onto the fields of corporate farmers who can afford to shell out huge amounts of capital for expensive machines. It needs to take the form of add-on technology that today’s farmer can use to immediately begin adding value – so they can compete against those big corporations.

When it comes to looking at newly developed robotic farm equipment – whether autonomous or not – we’re going to save it for our coming article on the fruit farms of tomorrow as we travel to Bingen, Washington this spring to smoke a bunch of dank and hang out with some actual fruit farmers – and a whole lot of Mexicans – to find out what tomorrow’s fruit farms will look like. Stay tuned.

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if we “missed” your amazing autonomous farming equipment project or startup, just drop a note in the comments section below and tell everyone about it. It always helps to provide some indication of how close the equipment is to being commercialized, or if in fact it’s already being used. We largely focused on tractors in this piece because they can pull all kinds of farming equipment. Any one of these large companies that makes a tractor autonomous can then easily make just about any piece of farming equipment autonomous.

There are an incredible number of agtech startups looking to transform farming, and we’re going to deep-dive into many of them this coming year because it’s a popular topic among readers, and because it gives us a chance to show how technology is being used to fulfill one of the most basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. Maybe then, ‘Muricans will start being more grateful for the opportunities they have, grateful for the 1,300 choices of salad dressing in their local supermarket, and grateful they don’t belong to the 37% of people in this world who live in one of the 49 countries out there that are not free democracies.

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