How Autonomous Tractors and Smart Farm Tech Could Help Improve Self-Driving Cars

Automation and intelligence that could even help the environment

  • Autonomous tractors are taking some of the tedious work out of farming. 
  • Self-driving tractors can provide lessons for the car industry. 
  • Smart farming can have environmental benefits through the use of fewer chemicals.
Someone holding a tablet computer that controls an autonomous tractor, which is working in a field.

Scharfsinn86 / Getty Images

Tesla may be synonymous with semi-autonomous cars on the road, but self-driving tractors are taking over fields. 

A new study finds that global positioning satellite (GPS) systems are used on over 40 percent of all US farm and ranch acreage for on-farm production. Experts say that car makers have a lot to learn from automated tractors. 

"Before consumers enjoy the full benefits of autonomy, it must be perfected in more confined situations, such as a fixed route on a farm," Aaron English, a product marketing manager at Ouster, which builds 3D lidar sensors for use in autonomous vehicles, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Learnings from the AI-based software and sensor stacks as part of the overall autonomous system can be applied to consumer vehicles to make them safer as automakers introduce new driver assistance capabilities on the path to fully autonomous vehicles."

The Benefits of Autonomous Tractors

Today's farmers are expected to keep up with the demands of a growing population in a world where agricultural systems already occupy 46% of habitable land, Mark Schwager, the president at the autonomous tractor company Monarch Tractor, said in an email. With an expectation to increase outputs regardless of the limitations available land for farming and already slim profit margins, the farming industry needs new solutions. 

Autonomous tractors can also be used around the clock so there is no downtime allowing for peak efficiency when it comes to caring for or harvesting crops...

"By automating some of the time-intensive, mundane processes of farming, autonomous solutions can help increase labor productivity and conserve inputs on the farm," Schwager said. 

Monarch's MK-V, which the company claims is the world's first electric, driver-optional smart tractor, can perform pre-programmed tasks without a driver. Schwager said using the MK-V tractor and its autonomous functions simultaneously helps solve some challenges farmers face, including labor shortages, safety concerns, increased customer scrutiny for sustainable practices, and government regulations. 

"The technological advancements of the MK-V allow for one farm operator to remotely manage up to 8 autonomous tractors, helping farmers maximize the uptime of their tractor fleet, managing a fleet of tractors from the comfort of their truck or desk, and track important metrics to reduce overhead and increase yield," he said. 

Just as some critics say fully autonomous cars are far from being ready for users, Schwager said his company has learned that it cannot automate every aspect of farming. Monarch intentionally left the vehicle's seat and steering wheel so farmers could jump in and tackle the one-off jobs without automation.

Automated mechanical arms harvesting lettuce on a smart farm.

Vithun Khamsong / Getty Images

"We emphasize that the autonomous tech should be used for the dirty, dangerous, and dull parts of the job, which comprise over 90% of its usage, rather than completely removing the farmer for all tractor needs," he added. "Translating this to the personal auto industry, we have seen that personal transport can be automated, but its challenges are far greater with an occupant, without vehicle controls, and at potentially high speeds."

Like semi-autonomous cars, smart farm vehicles come in many varieties. English said that tractors could be semi- or fully-automated, in line with local regulations and depending operator's needs. Features can include auto-steering and other driving assistance capabilities, autonomous spraying, and fully autonomous driver-out functionality.

"Autonomous tractors can also be used around the clock so there is no downtime allowing for peak efficiency when it comes to caring for or harvesting crops, enabling farmers to focus on other tasks," English said. 

Smart Farming for the Win

Autonomous tractors could soon become the default vehicles on farms. The market for autonomous farming equipment is expected to reach approximately $95 billion by 2027. In the US alone, more than an estimated 4 million agricultural machines can be retrofitted and automated, English said. 

"Smart farming leveraging AI and automation will change the way we produce and harvest crops," English said. "Farming operations will not only become more autonomous and efficient. The way we farm will also evolve. This will be driven by new data insights gleaned from today's smart farming operations. Efficiently managed crops, for example, might require less space outdoors and yield higher results being grown indoors with automated equipment that carefully controls temperature, soil, water, and chemical spraying."

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