Are Driverless Tractors on the Right Track?

Each day, 208,400 more people are added to the world’s dining table and by 2025, we will need to feed 8 billion people. The fast-growing demand for food, along with the continuously shrinking number of food producers, is a matter of global concern. However, this is also an opportunity for robots to rise and shine in the agricultural field. Tractica conducted an extensive study of the agricultural robot market opportunity in 2015, the findings of which were published in our report, Agricultural Robots. The research was focused on the applications, market drivers, and key challenges that could impact the growth of agricultural robots. One of the key findings of our report was the forecast that driverless tractor revenue would reach $30.7 billion by 2024. Like any other autonomous or semi-autonomous (supervised) unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), driverless tractors are programmed to navigate, understand their position, determine speed, and avoid obstacles, such as people, animals, or objects in the field, while performing their tasks. The impact of driverless tractors on farm operations will be dramatic, and the vehicles hold the potential to provide a huge boost to productivity.

On August 30, in a milestone move, CNH Industrial gave the public a glimpse at what the future of agriculture could look like at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa with a preview of its concept autonomous tractor technology.

According to Case IH (a CNH Industrial subsidiary) Brand President Andreas Klauser, the concept was created to validate the technology and to collect customer feedback regarding their interest and need for future autonomous products for their operations. “In many parts of the world, finding skilled labor during peak use seasons is a constant challenge for our customers,” Klauser added.

Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) is CNH Industrial’s technology provider responsible for developing and refining autonomous vehicle technology for concept autonomous tractors, including the Case IH Magnum and New Holland T8 NHDrive. ASI, which is based in Utah, is the industry leader in off-road autonomous solutions with nearly two decades of experience in the domain.

“Our relationship with CNH Industrial is vital in facilitating the near-term disruption of how farming is done. We’re thrilled to be working with the leaders in Ag innovation to make this exciting future of driverless tractors a reality,” says Mel Torrie, ASI founder and CEO. As a smaller and more agile technology developer, ASI is able to partner with large global companies such as CNH Industrial to help them go to market with multi-vehicle autonomy faster and more economically than they could in any other way.

These tractors will have the ability for autonomous seeding, planting, and tillage for broadacre and row crop farming. ASI believes that its advanced path planning technology, along with obstacle detection, would enable farmers to manage their fields more efficiently and safely. Through the use of radar, lidar, and onboard video cameras, the vehicle could sense stationary or moving obstacles in its path and would stop on its own until the operator, notified by audio and visual alerts, assigns a new path. The vehicle would also stop immediately if the global positioning system (GPS) signal or position data is lost, or if the manual stop button is pushed. Machine tasks could also be modified in real time with via remote interface or automatic weather warnings. An intensive testing program was undertaken to ensure both the concept tractors themselves and the critical tractor/planter interface are fully functional and intuitive to operate. The concept autonomous tractors address relevant real-world situations as autonomous tractor operation is suited both to owner-operator situations, where it could allow a person working with no employees to operate two tractors, as well as to the very largest agricultural operations where finding skilled labor is becoming increasingly more challenging.

At present, apart from CNH Industrial and ASI, there are other companies including a few startups that have been actively working to produce marketable driverless tractors and have made strides toward substantial prototypes and testing. The prominent ones among those are John Deere, AGCO Corporation, and Autonomous Tractor Corporation. In Tractica’s analysis, driverless tractors are certainly on the right track and the future looks promising. Tractica believes the driverless tractor market will continue to evolve relatively quickly and by 2020, the market opportunities should be attractive enough to pull in many of the non-agricultural companies that are currently involved with driverless technology.

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