By Tom Collins
Farmers are using driverless tractors in Japan and Europe but they are still years away from North America for use at planting and harvest time, say industry experts.
Many believe that the driverless (or autonomous) tractor — one that operates independently while a farmer is off doing other chores — is the next big thing in farming. The driverless movement has already started with cars. Ontario launched a 10-year pilot project in January, but there still needs to be someone in the driver’s seat in case something goes wrong.
In Japan this year, Kubota launched its first commercial driverless tractor, used for tillage, as well as fertilizer and pesticide application in rice paddies.
Fendt produces a driverless tractor that mimics the movements of a second nearby tractor driven by a farmer but it’s only available in Europe.
A John Deere spokesperson told Farmers Forum that while it doesn’t market a driverless tractor, the company “does not want to speculate on this technology or discuss when we might introduce one to the market. There are too many unknowns at this time.”
A Case IH spokesperson said Case has no plans for driverless tractors.
Several years ago, a North Dakota company, Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC), designed a driverless tractor that looks like a giant box on treads. The machine uses an Area Positioning System, whereby the tractor operates within the boundaries of four transponders placed at four corners of a field but the tractor is not ready for market.
ATC has also created an eDrive (electric drivetrain) system that can be installed on current tractors, and an AutoDrive system that works with the eDrives that can do tillage and baling applications autonomously.
But the AutoDrive is at least a year away from a test market.
ATC president Kraig Schulz said farmers want a driverless tractor for the smaller, menial jobs like tillage, mowing, baling and picking rocks.
“Basic things where the farmer has better things to do and the task isn’t super complicated so if you screw up a little bit no one really cares,” Schulz told Farmers Forum. “That’s what farmers would prefer to automate because what they really want is an extra hand and they know that extra hand isn’t going to be super-skilled. They’re essentially getting cheap hired labour which happens to be a computer.”
Schulz believes the market is about two years away from seeing driverless tractors rolled out for the menial jobs. However, we’re still decades away from a driverless tractor for planting and harvest, he said.
“Are you really going to have a farmer say ‘I don’t really feel like going out and harvesting my corn?’ I mean, give me a break. That is what farmers value in themselves,” Schulz said. “There’s a real art to it. If you mess up the planting, you’re kind of hosed because you can’t plant again. I don’t think you’re going to get farmers to give up (planting, harvesting and spraying).”
Morley Wallace, of GPS Ontario at North Gower in Eastern Ontario, said he gets asked a lot about driverless tractors at trade shows and he’s not optimistic. He tells farmers that a fully driverless tractor that would allow you to walk away to do other chores is likely decades away, unless you’re talking about a vegetable harvest and the tractor moves at one mile per hour.
“Our rules and regulations and concerns for public safety are more of a holdback than anything,” said Wallace, who isn’t a fan of unmanned equipment. “Somebody has to be in control and take responsibility for it. That’s a must. Letting something go out and turn at the headlands, yes it will do it 10,000 times, (but) the one time it doesn’t, what damage does it do? The size of the equipment today and the damage it could create would be huge.”
There are no Ontario laws against driverless tractors on private property but you need a driver on roadways.
The biggest hurdles to getting the technology to market is the legal wrangling, industry observers say. If a tractor goes rogue and rams into a house, who’s at fault? Is it the farmer, the user, the technician who calibrated the software, the dealership, the software manufacturer, the tractor manufacturer, the lawmakers or someone else?
Regardless, the industry is pushing driverless cars big time.
“You’ve got a lot of really high-powered companies working on autonomous vehicle technology in automobiles,” said Reid Hamre, Georgia-based product marketing manager for agricultural equipment for Yanmar America, a Japanese systems and parts manufacturer. But “not only are there technology issues to solve, like having a fail/safe level of vision for detecting obstacles built into the machinery you’re using, you have to get the liability cloud cleared up and resolved.”
Hamre believes commercial driverless tractors are only a few years away. There’s a huge push to work out the technical and legal glitches because of high demand in the car industry, he said. Hamre said much of the technology already exists, and in the case of farming, it could mean installing geo-fencing to create a virtual barrier around the farm so a tractor can’t go past the virtual fence. This is similar to technology that now exists in grocery stores. Try leaving the parking lot with the shopping cart and the wheels lock.
“A machine could drive for miles until it strikes something,” he said. “That’s a major issue that needs to be addressed.”