• Automation
  • 7 MINS READ

The Autonomous Tractor:
A New Productivity Standard

  • Bear Flag
  • June 29, 2021

Throughout history, farmers have always wanted to maximize their productivity. The first recorded ag equipment was developed by Sumerian farmers around 5500 BC. It was a prototype plow made with forked sticks. Dragged through the dirt, the plow formed a trench in which seeds could be planted.

 

We have come a long way since 5500 BC. But amongst farmers, the desire for better methods remains unchanged. The most successful farmers are still those that can set the highest bar for productivity: achieve the best yield, at the lowest expense. 

 

Today, we live in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Our cutting-edge modern farm equipment leverages automation, AI, and widespread digitization. Enter the autonomous tractor.

 

Modern farms face a variety of productivity challenges: labor shortages, climate change, and more. For a few decades, the sector has kept ahead of these challenges through technological innovations. Autonomous farm tractors are the fundamental transformation in this story. Their introduction to the industry will help maximize productivity in the decades to come. 

 

The Productivity Challenges of Modern Farming

According to the USDA, “even as the amount of land and labor used in farming declined, total farm output nearly tripled between 1948 and 2017.”

 

This surge in output was driven by “innovations in animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment, and farm organization.” These factors “enabled continuing output growth without adding much to inputs.”

 

In the coming years and decades, autonomous farm tractors are set to continue this trend. When they were first invented in 1889, tractors provided farms with a massive productivity boost. They were hardier, stronger, and faster than animals. The autonomous tractor, in turn, is more productive, and more accurate than traditional manned tractors.

 

The productivity gains heralded by the autonomous tractor are much needed, because a number of key trends are preventing farmers from achieving maximum results.

 

Labor Shortages

In the past five years, more than 40% of farmers have been unable to obtain all the workers they needed for the production of their main crop, according to a survey released by the California Farm Bureau. The pandemic exacerbated conditions due to stricter regulations in hiring foreign workers and social distancing rules. The crisis put 50% of the agricultural workforce at risk. This creates even greater shortages, which in turn harms the ability of farms to source the labor they need. 

 

Farming is labor-intensive, and not everybody is physically capable of performing this kind of work. Farming has always required a new influx of young, competent workers in order to keep productivity high. However, the average age of a skilled farm worker is now around 59 years old. And as more operators reach retirement age, fewer young farmers are coming in to fill the vacancies. Farmers under the age of 35 account for only 9% of the total population.

 

This huge deficit in the workforce is a serious productivity limiting factor on farms. When farms can’t source the laborers they need, they can never achieve their desired results. 

 

Climate Change

The effects of climate change on agriculture over the past decade have been severe. Farming communities worldwide are continuously experiencing its devastating effects.

 

Farming productivity is directly affected by the ill effects of climate change. Due to unusual weather patterns, more and more farmers are not able to maximize the whole planting season. Due to extreme weather conditions farmers need to adjust their operation to fit in small weather windows. A report published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency has noted a rise in temperatures, a shift in snow and rainfall patterns, and heavy rainstorms. All of these reduce the planting season, and have damaging knock-on effects for yields.

 

The Transformative Power of Automation

Labor shortages and climate change are major drags on productivity in farming. Many modern farming techniques are aimed at mitigating the impacts of these forces.

 

The autonomous tractor is built specifically to help farmers maximize their productivity despite the counterwinds of the time. 

 

Labor Shortage Solution

There is a common misconception that, outside every set of farm gates, a swathe of skilled workers are standing around, just waiting to be hired. Unfortunately, this is not true. Good labor is scarce, and hard to find. It can be even harder to sustain through seasonal shifts and dips in demand.

 

An autonomous tractor can seamlessly fill the gap created by absent human labor. Regardless of the labor pool available, farms can reliably till their fields, in exactly the way they need. No concerns about being short-handed, or lacking the manpower to cover the full acreage in a weather window.

 

Moreover, driverless tractors break the one man, one tractor paradigm. One operator can run a fleet of tractors at the same time. With a fully operational autonomous tractor fleet, a farm can run multiple tractors and work on large areas with minimal supervision. 

 

As Josh Ruiz, vice president of agricultural operations at Church Brothers Farm, said of Bear Flag: “One day, the autonomous tractor might allow me to operate at night with one person managing five tractors, versus having five drivers that don’t want to work through the middle of the night,”

 

With these advantages brought by autonomous tractors, farms can expect minimal administrative worries and drastically lower production costs.

 

Keeping Up with Climate Change

A study published by Harvard University points out the threat that climate change poses to agriculture across the globe. The changes in weather patterns and extreme weather conditions are becoming serious.

 

Using automated farming systems will help farmers keep up with climate change, and adapt to its troublesome demands. A fleet of autonomous tractors can operate on small favorable weather windows while keeping productivity at maximum level. It can also minimize hazards like working at night or during extreme weather conditions.

 

The Blueprint of Autonomous Tractors

Autonomous tractors employ state-of-the-art technology features such as overlapping and redundant sets of sensors. These can help detect any irregularity in the field during operation, and are key to overall farm productivity. Here are some of the other key features of the autonomous tractor

 

3D Camera

A 3D camera is an imaging device that allows the perception of depth in images to replicate three dimensions as experienced through the human eye. This technology is perfect when controlling autonomous farm tractors from afar.

 

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)

LIDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. It can determine ranges by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver. This technology is very effective in maneuvering terrain.

 

IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit)

An IMU is an electronic device that measures and reports a body’s specific force, angular rate, and sometimes the orientation of the body, using a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and sometimes magnetometers. This sensor is effective in giving operators maneuverability during operation. These sensors can detect phenomena in the field like broken implements, wet and uneven soil, or even obstacles that can impede movement. This technology can help farmers run their operation smoothly, and avoid hiccups that can affect production.

 

The Present and Future of Autonomous Tractors

The agricultural industry has always relied on technological innovation to keep productivity high. This has been true for centuries. The autonomous tractor is the latest feature in this long-running story. 

 

Labor shortages, productivity concerns, and climate change are a perfect confluence of obstacles. Operators need ways to raise the bar for productivity without adding cost. Recruiting driverless tractors is a way to future-proof the agricultural business model.

  • Bear Flag
  • June 29, 2021