Next time you pass a farm where a modern tractor is cruising around a field, take a closer look. While there is a farmer sitting in the cab, the vehicle might be driving itself. That tractor is often operating on auto pilot using semi-autonomous, self-driving technology.
While the tractor plows along thanks to features like autosteer and computer-assisted technologies for applying fertilizers or pesticides, the farmer can send work texts or emails, pay bills or even flip through Instagram stories or Tik Tok videos.
For farmers, this kind of efficiency is not a luxury. It is a must. Skilled farm labour is nearly impossible to find, a fact that’s long inspired livestock producers to adopt time and labour-saving technologies such as robotic feeders and dairy cow milking machines.
It is the same with tractors. While automobile manufacturers rave about self-driving cars, that technology has been available for tractors for 20 years. In fact, autonomous technologies, like hands-free steering, is now standard on high-powered commercial tractors, including those built by John Deere.
The iconic company has always been a leader in agricultural technology going back to 1837, when Illinois blacksmith John Deere invented one of the first steel plows that could till prairie soil without clogging.
Earlier this year, the company unveiled the industry’s first fully autonomous tractor. Farmers still need to drive this tractor to their fields, but once they get there they can get out and watch it work on its own. It can be configured to perform several tasks, including pull machinery, without a driver.
“Today’s tractors can perform many driving and end-row turning functions automatically, but still require an operator in cab,” said Ryan Jardon, a product marketing manager with John Deere. “True autonomous machines take that to the next level, by automating every decision and input a machine operator must make, including performance adjustments such as tillage working depth.”
The autonomous unit’s central feature is six pairs of cameras mounted on the front and back of the tractor. They give its GPS guidance system a 360-degree view of any obstacles it might encounter. The cameras also tell the onboard computer the tractor’s exact location in the field.
Images captured by the cameras are passed through a neural network, with each analyzed in about 100 milliseconds. The information tells the tractor’s guidance system to let it proceed or make it stop. Farmers can keep track of the tractor using an app on their phones or computers.
In a field, it all looks very natural, like a conventional green John Deere. You’d hardly notice it or give it a second glance. Until you realize there’s no one in the cab.
For now, the autonomous unit – called a “bolt on” by the company – is being added to John Deere’s most popular tractor, the 410-horsepower model 8R. As the company learns more about the system's performance, it will make it compatible with other models.
What farmers think
John Deere debuted the unit at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. It impressed farmers like Alberta’s John Kowlachuk, who grows grain and oilseeds near Trochu.
“It’s tough finding people to work on farms, and autonomous tractors could be a perfect fit for agriculture,” he said. “They could mean fewer human resources are needed, less time spent in the field, not so much manual labour and more time for family. In many applications they make more sense than driving self-controlled units.”
John Deere hasn’t officially announced a price for the autonomous bolt on. Jahmy Hindman, the company’s chief technology officer, has said that the figure could be around 10 per cent of the total equipment cost. The price tag on an 8R model is about $500,000 (U.S.), meaning the autonomous bolt-on could cost $50,000.
Farmers in the United States will take delivery of the first 10 to 15 units this year. No timetable has been set for the machine’s Canadian introduction. But some farmers, like Tyler Burns of Windy Poplars Farm in Wynyard, Sask., are anxious to give it a try.
“Once fully autonomous equipment can do as good of a job in the field as a farmer, there will be steady adoption,” Burns said. “It will become another tool in the farmer’s toolbox if it provides a solution to a problem, and the shortage of predictable labour could be one of them. But it will be up to farmers to decide if the cost of the technology is worth it.”
Beef producer Gordon Dibble of Dibbhurst Farms in Ingersoll, Ont., said he thinks fully autonomous tractors have a future, but he’s not sure he wants one driving around without him in it.
“I farm with my dad. Someday, when he retires, we’ll have a labour shortage and might need an autonomous tractor. But, at this time, we don’t,” Dibble said. “Maybe in 100 years all we’ll see are autonomous tractors. For now, though, I want to drive and fix my own tractor. Tractor time relaxes me.”
At the Las Vegas show, some comparisons were made between an autonomous tractor manoeuvring in a field and stories of autonomous cars driving on highways without occupants, raising concerns about safety. Alberta farmer Mike Ammeter, chair of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, said we shouldn’t worry about the tractor.
“The public might feel safer about being around a driverless tractor travelling at five miles per hour in a field, than next to a Tesla with no driver flying past you on the 401,” he said.
Owen Roberts is an agricultural journalist. Follow him on twitter @TheUrbanCowboy.