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Autonomous Tractors Could Make Farming A Whole Lot Easier

All Image Credits: CNH Industrial
All Image Credits: CNH Industrial
Truck YeahThe trucks are good!

Farming isn’t easy. It means long hours, taxing physical labor and harsh conditions. Some farmers don’t even have employees to help get everything done. Autonomous tractors could be a solution to many problems.

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Capital goods company CNH Industrial has developed autonomous tractor concepts via the Case IH and New Holland Agriculture tractor and farming equipment brands. They’re pretty sweet.

Case IH Magnum
Case IH Magnum
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New Holland T8
New Holland T8

Today’s tractors have already got autosteer features. The autonomous tech that CNH is experimenting with will take that further. From the press release:

Based on the existing Case IH Magnum and New Holland T8 high-horsepower conventional tractors, and using GPS in conjunction with the most accurate satellite correction signals for ultra-precise guidance and immediate recording and transmission of field data, the CNH Industrial autonomous tractor concept has been designed to allow completely remote deployment, monitoring and control of the machines.

The Magnum is cabless and has no room for an operator. The T8 has a cab so a person can still drive it on the road and use it for jobs that autonomous tractors can’t yet do.

But when you switch them to autonomous mode, the machines can be monitored and controlled from a computer or a tablet interface. You can see live data and track location. To keep your tractors on your land and from meandering into your neighbor’s fields, you can set boundaries into the system. If you have a fleet a machines, they’ll stay out of each other’s way. The tractors can be programmed to cultivate, plant, spray or mow.

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Hardware includes range-finding lasers and cameras. CNH says that the future the concepts will be able to use things like weather satellite information to maximize the best conditions, no matter what time of day. The tractors could be equipped to perform a bunch of different jobs, thus cutting down on the amount of machinery a farmer has to own. Endless possibilities, it sounds like.

On top of that, because the tractors are GPS equipped, they can also cut down on fuel usage in the long run. With the entire farm laid out as a map, it’s much easier not to overlap.

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Autonomous tech is moving to streamline everyday tasks that would otherwise be extremely menial or labor intensive. Allowing farmers to be able to focus on more important tasks and having the tractors outside doing the heavy lifting seems like a good idea to me.

Plus, I can easily imagine these tractors as Autobots. That’s always a plus.

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.

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DISCUSSION

When I’m in the tractor today, it’s already 90% autonomous when in-field. I’ve had great philosophical discussions (I’d call them debates if we disagreed) with other young tech-savvy farmers my age. We all agree, the number of sensors you’d need to add to replace an operator is astounding. We’re constantly on the lookout for damaged parts, bearing going out, fluid leaks, air leaks, shafts stuck, worn out pieces, broken chains, skipping sprockets, etc. Not to mention that field conditions change quickly and are not uniform. One field can present multiple challenges in a given day. Things like rocks and wet spots are important to avoid. Now, if this machine notifies you of an issue and you can simply solve it with your ipad, great. You’ll be solving problems all day long. But if something occurs that requires a physical reset, you’re SOL. Oh yeah, and what if a sensor fails. Our planter alone already has hundreds of sensors, and there comes a time when they fail in bunches! All of this in the name of productivity? But productivity of what?

Certainly not productivity of capital. A new fixed frame front wheel assist tractor (non autonomous) John Deere 8370R starts with a base price of $371,285. If i were to option this out for use on our farm we’re talking $430,000 easily. ILS,IVT, etc. Now add autonomy, and who knows where the price will land!? Or I can shop the used market, get into a low-hour machine with the same options today for only $210,000. I can literally buy two used tractors with less than two years on them and with over decade and a half of life left for half the price for brand new! There’s efficiency of capital.

In the end, I can see fully autonomous grain carting and that’s about it in our operation. Everything else requires hundreds of important decisions to be made per hour and the entry cost and potential increase in maintenance makes it a terribly inefficient use of capital.