Self Driving Tractors

The first imagining of a self-driving car came in the form of Miles J. Brauer’s 1930 novel Paradise and Iron. The book featured a host of vehicles, from cars to cranes, all of which could operate themselves with no human supervision. Since then, autonomous vehicles have steadily moved farther from being a far-flung sci-fi set piece and further into the territory of inevitable innovation. 

In fact, most of us are aware of the breakneck speeds that autonomous vehicles are developing at; new Tesla vehicles come fitted with all the necessary hardware for self-driving capabilities, and are waiting only on the perfection and approval of the necessary software; Mercedes is already approved to release its Drive Pilot technology on the German autobahn, permitting drivers to fully take their hands off of the wheel at speeds up to 60km/hr; Even here at the University of Waterloo, the Autonomous Vehicles Research and Intelligence Lab is poised to run a fully autonomous shuttle that would transport students and faculty around the campus without the need for a human driver. 

It seems only natural than that, with time, the technology would continue to expand throughout the various other piloted vehicles and machines that we employ as a society. While it may not have been anyone’s first guess, it seems that the next vehicle to drive itself might be an unusual one: tractors.  

Grown Remote 

The idea of automation in the agricultural sector isn’t necessarily new. In 2016, Kit Franklin, a lecturer at Harper Adams University, coopted an acre of university land for a research project. Over the course of a year, Franklin cultivated the land and produced around 5 tonnes of barley. The catch? With little exception, all of the farming was done remotely. Franklin retrofitted an old combine and tractor with LIDAR sensors, complex instruments which use lasers and GPS to measure their surroundings in 3D, so that they could independently plant the crop, eventually harvesting the barley with a drone. 

Franklin’s experiment is interesting, and is currently being scaled up after its initial success, but it’s hardly practical to recreate. It’s one thing for a researcher with access to funding and a specialized team to be able to farm a field remotely, but the reality of automation in the agricultural sector will have to be much more accessible.  

It seems that farming equipment manufacturer John Deere, however, may be bringing us the first piece of that accessible model in the form of autonomous tractors. 

Self-Driving Tractors: Near and Deere 

John Deere, renowned as one of the leading producers of farming equipment in North America, revealed during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that they were launching a new product that could operate tractors without requiring a driver in the vehicle.  

The system would consist of a kit that would be compatible with existing tractors and could be installed over the course of about a day. As of yet, the company has not decided whether they will sell the kits outright, or provide them to farmers on a leased or subscription-based model. Either way, the company claims that the product will allow a tractor to be controlled from a smartphone, and will make use of cameras and sensors to traverse fields.  

Trouble in Paradise 

As exciting as it may sound not everyone is enthused and. Incidents with heavy machinery and farming vehicles constitute the leading cause of death within the agricultural sector, an industry already particularly hazardous compared to others. While a self-driving tractor would ostensibly remove personnel from having to interact directly with these dangerous machines, their safety would then depend on the technology reliably being able to detect dangers, a task that other self-driving vehicles still aren’t fully trusted with. 

In addition to fears regarding safety, the advanced technology only serves to exacerbate the existing campaign against John Deere for farmers’ right to repair their equipment. As John Deere has continued to develop their products, introducing new safety features and functionality, the increase in computerization and proprietary technology means that only the manufacturer is able to maintain or repair the equipment. Amidst an already uphill battle for farmers to have the ability to go to third parties for maintenance, or even to be able to perform it themselves, the introduction of another major technology looks to some like another way to ensure that farmers remain dependent on manufacturers.  

Whether they are lauded or hated, the fact is that they’re coming. John Deere plans to start selling a handful of kits this year, looking to scale up the operation in the future, with the potential to apply the technology to other equipment as well. It may feel like autonomous vehicles are a long way off as street legal self-driving technology continually fails to materialize, but if you’re looking for proof that they’re coming sooner or later then you might not have to look any farther than your own backyard.