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Driverless Farming Tractors Could Improve Industrial Crop Harvests in the Future

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【Summary】The best part is, it is easier to develop self-driving tractors than autonomous cars for human transportation. This is because developers don’t have to worry about the farming vessels encountering busy intersections, complex driving laws and pedestrians.

Original Michael Cheng    Jan 02, 2017 6:52 AM PT
Driverless Farming Tractors Could Improve Industrial Crop Harvests in the Future

According to a report by the United Nations, food production from large-scale farmers must increase by a whopping 70 percent in order to meet the needs of the growing population by 2050. With plenty of land to grow crops on, one of the main issues currently plaguing the billion-dollar industry is outdated processes. For example, at the moment, farmers are required to plough each field one at a time.

Like the commercial trucking sector, driverless technology can be used to address these problems. The best part is, it is easier to develop self-driving tractors than autonomous cars for human transportation. This is because developers don't have to worry about the farming vessels encountering busy intersections, complex driving laws and pedestrians. During operations, autonomous tractors can be programmed to plough an entire field without any distractions.

By comparison, even truck platooning, or self-driving technology that allows a string of trucks to move together simultaneously while reducing aerodynamic drag and fuel consumption by up to 20 percent, requires more effort to setup – especially when scheduling groups to depart and arrive at ports with minimal waiting times.

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Precision Planting

Driverless tractors can make farming more efficient. By boosting a unit's ability to manage land, fewer seeds are wasted and are needed to generate an abundant harvest. One of the pioneers of self-driving technology in the industrial farming sector is John Deere. The company currently has over 200,000 vessels that are equipped with autonomous platforms. Under the hood, the units utilize a combination of GPS tracking components and laser-guided systems while coordinating seed distribution.

"It is only a matter of time until fully autonomous vehicles take to the fields. When they do, the entire process of farming will be streamlined: connected ploughs, seeders and combine harvesters will talk and work together," said Matt Burgess from Wired.

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Addressing Labor Shortages

From another perspective, autonomous tractors may help address spikes in labor shortage that the industry faces during harvest seasons. Most farming businesses hire temporary workers to fill the productivity gap when it comes time to remove crops from the field. So far, there is one company ahead of the pack that intends to deploy driverless tractors to commercial markets - Case IH (owned by CNH Industrial). The group first revealed a prototype of the vehicle during the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.

The tractor features an impressive maximum speed of 31 mph, thanks to a gigantic 419-horsepower engine, and houses a range of cameras, radar components and sensors for robust control. Sadly, these vessels don't have a release date yet. The business has developed a fully functioning unit, but the legal or regulatory aspects of the release is preventing the company from making further progress.

"Thirty percent of the berry crop in California wasn't harvest due to a lack of labor. During harvest, time is extremely valuable. These concept autonomous tractors would allow for true 24-hour operation to harvest or plant in critical, limited-time windows," explained Matt Nielsen, marketing director at Autonomous Solutions Inc.

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