Farmers Turn to Driverless Tech for Scalable, Cost-effective Solutions

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【Summary】According to statistics from IDTechEx, more than 300,000 self-driving tractors were sold in 2016. Driverless vessels for agricultural projects are wildly successful due to lower barrier-to-entry challenges associated with the units.

  Michael Cheng  ·  May 18, 2017 6:30 AM PT
author: Michael Cheng   

Increased labor and operating costs have plagued the farming industry in the last decade. To curb such challenges, agricultural companies are turning to self-driving technology and advancements in battery-powered vessels. 

According to Peter Feuilherade from E-tech, industrial and commercial markets will be leading the adoption of cutting-edge automotive (electric) technologies, accounting for 60 percent of purchases. Unlike self-driving cars for public roads, autonomous tractors must be capable of planting seeds, extracting crops from the ground and mixing fertilizer – without help from a human operator.

"We kind of laugh when we see news stories about self-driving cars, because we've had that for years," said Jason Poole, a 34-year-old crop consultant from Kansas.

GPS-powered, Driverless Tractors

GPS components are critical to driverless tractors on agricultural sites. During deployment, the units follow a programmed route that is plotted beforehand by an operator. According to statistics from IDTechEx, more than 300,000 self-driving tractors were sold in 2016. For dealing with various terrains, some advanced autonomous tractors use LIDAR for accurate guidance. Video cameras constantly monitor the environment for obstacles, though this is not as vital to sustaining operations as GPS.

Developers of self-driving tractors are currently experimenting with sensors for detecting abnormalities around the agricultural location. For example, sensors may sense the presence of wild plants growing around vegetable crops. After sensing the disturbance, the tractor may spray the area with a chemical solution to eradicate the unwanted growth of weeds. Another sensor may be used to measure the dryness or moisture levels of crops. Should it sense overheating, the tractor may cool the area down with water.

"Depending on the robot's function, onboard sensors may include biological (including chemical and gas analyzers), water, meteorological, soil respiration or moisture, photosynthesis or Leaf Area Index (LAI) sensors, as well as weed detectors, dendrometers and hygrometers," explained Feuilherade.

Farming tractors require colossal amounts of horsepower to lug loads up and down the site. Because of this, the vessels consume a lot of power. A fully-electric tractor can be equipped with two, 150 kW motors (total of 300 kW or 402 hp). A 130 kWh power cell could power the unit for up to four hours on a single, three-hour charge.

Before Google

The farming sector is no stranger to self-driving technology. Before Google announced its entry into the industry, other businesses in the farming sector had already rolled out autonomous vehicles to its customers. One of these brands is John Deere.

"John Deere is the largest operator of autonomous vehicles," said Catherine J.K. Sandoval, a California public utilities commissioner at a recent event hosted by the Federal Trade Commission.

Driverless vessels for agricultural projects are wildly successful due to lower barrier-to-entry challenges associated with the units. Transportation authorities aren't busy pinning manufacturers with guidelines that are designed for public roads. Moreover, there aren't any intersections, sidewalks and pedestrians to avoid, making liability concerns less of an issue. Ultimately, the units must be able to drive themselves up and down fields in straight lines, which isn't too difficult for today's mature driverless platforms.

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