Autonomous robot tractors are making their way to farms around the world

  • John Deere’s signature green and yellow tractors turn autonomous
  • Fully electric and autonomous Monarch Tractor takes to the field
  • Yanmar Tractors: robot technology and precision positioning
  • Retrofit kits can make any existing tractor autonomous
  • Robot-as-a-service autonomous tractor kit
  • Downsides of autonomous farming machines

The agricultural sector, like most other industries, will see dramatic transformation in the next couple of years. Megatrends like AI, machine learning and other cutting-edge technologies will unleash significant opportunities for the development of new machines and processes that will help strengthen the stability and health of our worldwide food chain. And these are critical developments, as by 2050 the global population will have exploded and reached 10 billion people. And all these people will need to be fed. The latest innovations not only help agribusinesses mitigate the devastating effects of climate change and help solve the problem of food shortages, but can also play a significant role in developing solutions for challenges around labour shortages and fast disappearing arable land.

And while the rise of automation in every conceivable industry has led to concerns of robots taking over millions of jobs, agricultural areas are increasingly seeing young people migrating to the cities and the number of farm workers dwindling, which leaves few other options but to consider autonomous farming to keep ensuring adequate food supplies. According to Abhisesh Silwal, a project scientist at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, “Similar to the autonomous car industry, full autonomy of farm vehicles and equipment can also be considered as an important, if not the ultimate, goal in the agriculture industry. Automating delicate, time-sensitive tasks like pruning and harvesting, which typically require skilled workers, could help sustainability in the long run.” And among some of the latest developments in agritech are autonomous tractors, which will soon be rolling onto a farm near you. 

The global market for autonomous tractors will grow from 12,508 units in 2019 to 60,901 units by 2025. The global autonomous tractors market size was $648.9 million in 2016, projected to reach $4,389.8 million in 2025, and around $6.38 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 24.0%.

Source: MarketsandMarkets

John Deere’s signature green and yellow tractors turn autonomous

Undoubtedly one of the most well-known names in agricultural machinery is John Deere. And although the company isn’t the first agriculture equipment producer to develop an autonomous tractor, it is certainly of the most notable and its tractors are ubiquitous across farms all over the world. The tractor giant has recently started developing its self-driving 8R tractor that can avoid obstacles, plant crops, and plough fields with minimal human intervention.

The 8R is equipped with six pairs of stereo cameras that capture a 360-degree view for obstacle detection, real-time data sharing capabilities, AI and machine learning, and remote monitoring and management features. The tractor makes use of neural network algorithms to analyse the data captured by its cameras. This data is used to adjust the algorithms, enhance performance, and offer insights on how operations can be improved.

All the farmer needs to do is look at his smartphone app, which controls the entire process – from starting the tractor’s engine to deciding and plotting which part of the field to plough. “All farmers need to do is transport their tractor to the field, get it set, get out the cab, and use their mobile phone to ‘swipe to farm’. And every eight hours, they return to give it fuel and move it from field to field,” says Deanna Kovar, vice president of production and precision ag production systems at John Deere. Although the tractor giant presents its 8R as an autonomous system, humans will still need to be involved. For instance, third-party contractors will analyse the images sent by the tractor to determine whether the obstacles detected have resolved or pose a problem and need human intervention.

John Deere has entered into a partnership with Austrian EV manufacturer Kreisel with the aim to eventually power its machines with electricity. “John Deere is committed to a future with zero emissions propulsion systems and is investing in and developing technologies for batteries as a sole- or hybrid-propulsion system for vehicles,” said Pierre Guyot, senior vice president at John Deere Power Systems.

Fully electric and autonomous Monarch Tractor takes to the field

California-based tractor company Monarch Tractor has teamed up with engineering firm Motivo to develop its first fully electric and fully autonomous tractor. The Monarch Tractor uses programmed algorithms, machine learning technology, onboard cameras and sensors, and data analytics to carry out its tasks. 

The advanced technologies built into this 40 to 70-horsepower tractor map and tag each crop on the farm and gather data about crop health, pests, and other critical information. This information is then transmitted to a secure cloud where it is analysed for actionable intelligence. The data can easily be accessed and provides a historical record of the seasons on the farm. The Monarch Tractors’ capabilities enable farmers to avoid dirty, dull, and dangerous farm operations and steer clear of harsh chemicals. Operators can manage a fleet of tractors from anywhere, which helps save time and money and improves safety on the farm.

The company was honoured in the Robotics category of the CES Innovation Awards for its flagship MK-V tractor, the first to deliver a convergence of electrification, automation and data analysis that improves safety and efficiency, empowers sustainable farming, and maximises profitability.

Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder and CEO of Monarch Tractor, says: “Monarch Tractor’s incorporation of robotics into our MK-V is yielding tremendous results for farmers. From autonomous capabilities that allow the tractor to drive itself to AI and machine learning that provide actionable intelligence for increased precision and efficiency in the fields, Monarch Tractor has become key in unlocking a profitable path forward toward more sustainable farming operations.”

Yanmar Tractors: robot technology and precision positioning 

The tractors made by Japanese agricultural machinery manufacturer Yanmar provide farmers with options that best suit their needs, as the machines are capable of full or partial autonomous operation. The tractors are fitted with robot technology and precision positioning systems, and their multi-frequency antennas ensure a stable connection and high positioning accuracy, even if the signal is interrupted on one of the frequencies. This leads to more efficient and safer autonomous driving. The Virtual Reference Station (VRS) technology provides reference point positioning data, which is sent to the tractor’s autonomous control system via a multi-frequency signal. 

“Yanmar’s auto tractor and robot tractor have found favour in the farming community for their efficiency, reliability and accuracy. With these new models, Yanmar offers farmers even more value with more robust positioning technology that allows even greater flexibility in the field,” said Nagamori Masuda, Yanmar Agribusiness president.

Yanmar has also revealed a new vineyard robot with cutting-edge autonomous technology – the YV01 – which was designed to automate vineyard operations. The flexible and lightweight machine is very environmentally-friendly as it has highly accurate spraying capabilities via electrically charged spray droplets that get attracted by the plant leaves, ensuring precise, full-surface treatment and reduced use of spraying fluids. The robot is ideally suited to vineyards with narrow pathways and shorter vines. It can climb and descend slopes of up to 45 degrees and can be simply and safely operated by a supervisor.  

Retrofit kits can make any existing tractor autonomous

Fieldin, a smart farm operations management company, has acquired Midnight Robotics to facilitate the development of retrofit kits that promise to turn any existing tractor into an autonomous one. The acquisition will integrate Midnight’s technology into Fieldin’s existing solution. Fieldin will provide 49 million hours of operation field data, which will be critical for the development of the retrofit kits. Yonatan Horovitz, CEO of Midnight Robotics, says: “This is the biggest dataset for agriculture. We’re utilising this data in order to make an ideal operation in farms. This is why this combination is amazing.” 

While an autonomous tractor has far fewer moving obstacles to worry about – compared to, for instance, a self-driving taxi in peak hour traffic – localisation is quite a complex undertaking in agricultural areas, as many farms have limited or no access to GPS data. To find ways around this, Midnight Robotics has equipped its retrofitting kits with lidar data, which is easy to use in open fields. The kits were first tested in complex areas with little room for error, like orchards and vineyards, to finetune them. Fieldin, meanwhile, has digitised thousands of pieces of farming equipment, tractors, and hundreds of farms, which provides data to help generate valuable insights into how to make agricultural operations more efficient and productive.

“Over the past eight years we’ve digitised hundreds of farms and over 10,000 tractors and pieces of farming equipment — more than anyone else in the high-value crop world — and amassed a trove of invaluable data that can offer insights into best practices in farm management. By acquiring Midnight Robotics, we’re helping farmers close the loop from insight to autonomous action, so they know exactly what they need to do and execute it autonomously, all through the same platform,” said Fieldin co-founder and CEO Boaz Bachar.

Robot-as-a-service autonomous tractor kit

Acquiring autonomous tractors requires significant investment, so why not make use of Robot-as-a-service platforms to transform your existing tractors into high-tech autonomous versions? Blue White Robotics’ RaaS platform recently launched its new autonomous tractor kit that can convert any tractor into a fully autonomous unit or even a fleet of self-driving tractors. Blue White Robotics says that by retrofitting existing infrastructure with intelligent autonomous algorithms, its robot tractors improve farm productivity, precision, and worker safety.

The use of this autonomous tractor kit enables farmers to give crops exactly the right attention and significantly reduces labour costs. The kit can be used to serve orchards and vineyards, enables tractors to efficiently carry out mowing and spraying tasks, and also reduces exposure to harmful pesticides and herbicides. The kit  incorporates a GPS module as well as lidar units and optical cameras for obstacle detection and avoidance, a pressure-sensitive front bumper that stops the tractor if it does run into an obstacle, and emergency off switches on the chassis.

Downsides of autonomous farming machines

For all the benefits autonomous farming machines and retrofitting kits may offer, there are various downsides that need to be considered as well. One of the disadvantages is legal liability. As autonomous tractors will be working in public areas, unlike factory robots, there’s always a chance of a malfunctioning machine rolling off the farm and causing damage, or – far worse – injuring animals or people. In such cases, who will be held accountable? The farmer who failed to keep an eye on the tractor? The manufacturer of the autonomous machine? The company that provided the retrofit kit? Extra safety measures, such as a human rider, barriers and signage around areas where autonomous machines will be operating, and easily accessible off switches may be beneficial for high value farms with biotech pharmacy crops. But for bulk commodities, the additional costs would make autonomous farm equipment a far less attractive route to go. 

Artificial intelligence and autonomy could also lead to farmers ultimately having less control over their operations and becoming increasingly reliant on the equipment providers, especially in the case of Robot-as-a-service platforms. It will also diminish their ability to control their own farming operations, as relying on algorithms and apps will mean farmers themselves will do less analysing and make fewer important decisions based on their own insights. Greg Meyers, Chief Information and Data Officer at Syngenta, one of the world’s leading agriculture companies, says: “It’s important to point out that farmers are very different than consumers because they only have 40 times in their lifetime to get it right and to make a living and to pass along the farm, so they’re not going to take a lot of risk on things that are unproven. I think until there’s trust around how these algorithms work, and they can demonstrate success on their particular field, it will take a while for them to be willing to take the production risks associated with relying on computers and algorithms to make decisions for them.”

And then there’s the gathering of data that takes place during autonomous operations, which is important for fine tuning the algorithms and enhancing equipment performance, and provides farmers with important insights that will help them optimise their operations. The potential danger, however, is that this data will become so valuable that the autonomous tractor suppliers or RaaS platform providers may ultimately start charging the farmers for access to this information. But do they own this data or does the farmer?

In closing

The food security challenge is an issue facing all of humanity, which has motivated companies like John Deere and others to develop technologies that will help stabilise the world’s food supply in years ahead. Within the next decade, we expect farming to be revolutionised by self-driving tractors and other sophisticated machines that can perform much of the work currently done by humans. Autonomous tractors offer the flexibility, speed, consistency, and precision needed to perform a variety of tasks and applications. They can operate 24 hours a day, save lots of time, and help agribusinesses increase their production and profit margins. There is no doubt that self-driving tractors are the future of agriculture. And agribusinesses that want to stay ahead of the competition, lower their operational costs, and increase profits will need to start deploying self-driving farming machinery. In the near future, combining cutting-edge technologies with farmers’ knowledge and wisdom will drastically change the way we farm and ensure that people all over the world will reap the benefits.

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