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Autonomous Tractors to Curtail Labor Shortages on Farms

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【Summary】According to a 2016 report published by Goldman Sachs, self-driving tractors are capable of decreasing labor expenses on farms, as well as increasing seasonal yields (up to 15 percent).

Michael Cheng    Sep 06, 2018 10:15 AM PT
Autonomous Tractors to Curtail Labor Shortages on Farms

With the world's population increasing at a rapid pace, demand for natural produce, including corn, wheat and rice, has never been higher. Because of this, industrial farmers must scale operations efficiently to meet their monthly quotas.

Driverless technology can be used to address a wide range of challenges associated with large-scale agriculture. From safety to labor shortages, many farmers are looking to implement such solutions to boost output during harvests and production. According to a 2016 report published by Goldman Sachs, self-driving tractors are capable of decreasing labor expenses on farms, as well as increasing seasonal yields (up to 15 percent).

Precision Farming with Driverless Tractors

Driverless tractors offer a plethora of advantages for farmers. For areas suffering from labor shortages, the units can be used to supplement manpower on the field. Furthermore, farming tasks could be conducted in bad weather with minimal safety risks (human operators monitor and control the vehicles from a remote location). Operations are also more consistent and are less likely to be delayed due to human-related factors.  

"Imagine a farmer by the time they wake up at 5 in the morning, his or her field is already tilled, because the machine can wake up at 2 a.m., decide it's the right time to do it, and go pick the right implement from the garage or the barn, then till the fields," said Rohit Sharma, a Partner at True Ventures.

From a long-term perspective, the deployment of self-driving tractors on farms may help decrease operating costs. Such benefits are applicable to intricate tasks, including the spraying of herbicides and fertilizers. Traditionally, human workers are required to suit up in hazardous gear and manually apply the liquid solutions on crops.

With autonomous vehicles, farming businesses do not have to invest in costly hazmat suits, spraying gear for laborers and worker safety certification for compliance. A self-driving tractor equipped with a spray attachment could replace standard workflows and provide 24/7 service, depending on the needs of the farmer.

Bear Flag Robotics

Bear Flag Robotics is one of many startups developing autonomous platforms for farming vehicles. Founded in 2016, the business has raised a total of $4.5 million in funding since its inception. The Silicon Valley-based company recently completed a seed round, which resulted in $3.5 million of fresh funds.

"We got a tour of an orchard and just how pronounced the labor problem is," explained Aubrey Donnellan, Founder of Bear Flag Robotics.

"They're struggling to fill seats on tractors. We talked to other growers in California. We kept hearing the same thing over and over: labor is one of the most significant pain points. It's really hard to find quality labor. The workforce is aging out. They're leaving the country and going into other industries."

The startup envisions a selection of autonomous platforms that can be used to streamline common tasks on the field. For example, operators may deploy a driverless tractor for carrying heavy loads across long distances. Spraying, irrigation and mowing could all be automated using various attachments that are mounted on the driverless tractor and software for remote monitoring.

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