Background 353 views

Interview: Driverless tractors – what the future holds

Farm machinery makers are innovators constantly dreaming of more efficient machines to help make farming better. Antonio Marzia, CNH Industrial’s head of data analytics and services gives us a glimpse of what's heading our way.

The seed drill, 3-point linkage and pto, all took massive steps forward in agricultural development. And more recently, air conditioning, pressurised cabs and suspension systems have made life a lot more pleasant for operators.

See also: Drones can play a key role in predicting potato yields

But the next revolution in agriculture looks set to be a technological, rather than a mechanical one. GPS steering, variable-rate technology and telematics have already given us a taste of the future, but apparently there’s a lot more to come.

  • Antonio Marzia, CNH Industrial’s head of data analytics and services – who played a key role in the development of Case-IH’s autonomous tractor. Photo: James Andrews

    Antonio Marzia, CNH Industrial’s head of data analytics and services – who played a key role in the development of Case-IH’s autonomous tractor. Photo: James Andrews

Antonio Marzia, CNH Industrial’s head of data analytics and services – who played a key role in the development of Case-IH’s autonomous tractor – gives us a glimpse of what's heading our way.

Why build an autonomous tractor now?

We actually started working on our first prototype driverless tractors more than 10 years ago. Back then they were very different machines to the one we’ve just revealed, though.

These earlier machines worked well, but they were built using incredibly expensive one-off components and needed a specialist operator to set-up and drive them. That meant they would never have been suitable for commercial release.

Now we’ve got the technology to a point where it can be set-up and operated from a laptop or tablet computer and almost anyone can be trained to do it. We’ve also given the tractor some artificial intelligence, allowing it to think for itself and operate as a truly autonomous machine.

This means it can do things such as take action to avoid an obstacle or decide to stop working if it’s raining. It also learns as it goes, so it can make more informed decisions. However, the operator still decides the extent to which the machine is permitted to act on its own behalf before asking their permission.

On top of this, the components inside it have come down in price to a more affordable level, thanks largely to the progress that’s already been made in the automotive sector.

Put all this together and we’ve got a user-friendly product that’s reliable and can at last be offered at a price that’s commercially viable. That’s why we decided to reveal it now.

  • Photo: James Andrews

    Photo: James Andrews

When can we buy one?

Sadly, it’s a little way off yet. Technologically the tractor is at a point where it could be launched, but we are being held back by similar legislative problems to the ones being faced by the car industry.

As this is such new technology there is no policy to govern its use, such as who is responsible for operating it safely and where it can and can’t be used.

It’s a real grey area and until this is sorted, we won’t be able to put it on general sale. We, along with other manufacturers, are in talks with EU officials to help speed the process along, though.

Although it’s likely to be several more years before we see the cabless, autonomous tractor, we are hoping to be able to sell some more conventional-looking tractors fitted with the technology by about 2020.

We’re also planning to begin fitting some of the underlying components and software into our tractors from next year, which means they will be 'autonomous ready' and could be converted to run autonomously in the future.

Won’t it put people out of work?

We don’t see that this technology will put people out of work.

Case-IH has a large number of customers, across the globe, who find it difficult to find and recruit skilled labour.

In Australia, the mining industry has attracted a huge number of workers to move out of the agricultural sector, which has left farmers severely short-staffed. Big farming operations in some of the more remote parts of Eastern Europe are in a similar situation, as well as some UK producers.

For these businesses, an autonomous tractor could solve this recruitment headache as the tractor, or several of these tractors, can be set up and monitored by one skilled operator that is able to work remotely.

But the tractor could also help ease the pressure on some farming businesses where tractor drivers routinely clock up long hours.

Because this technology can still be fitted to tractors with a cab, it’s possible for the driver to operate it during the day and then let the tractor take over in the evening, or even work through the night.

  • Photo: James Andrews

    Photo: James Andrews

Will this technology change the way we farm?

I’m sure it will, but it’s hard to predict how. Although we’ve built the machine, it’s up to farmers to decide how they will use it.

The next stage of our development process is to trial the tractor on a series of farms to see how it is used and how farmers would like to see it developed.

We’ve already been told that drilling is a task farmers prefer a human to handle, even though the tractor is capable of doing it, so to start with we’re concentrating on other tasks such as cultivations and fertiliser application.

Will it only be for big farmers?

For the launch, we decided to fit the technology to one of our larger Magnum tractors, but it could be adapted to fit almost any tractor in our range.

Initially, I expect larger farmers or farmers growing high-value crops will be most interested, as the technology will be considerably more expensive than a standard machine.

But like anything, as it becomes more established the prices will drop and it will become a more viable purchase for a smaller producer.

Are autonomous tractors safe?

Safety was one of the most important factors when we were designing the tractor and it’s fitted with sensors all round to detect obstacles and avoid them.

Also, if a component fails its default setting is to come to a stop. Unlike the car industry, we don’t have to worry about protecting the driver or passenger, so the tractor is programmed to avoid people or other obstacles at all costs.

Most of the time the machines will also be working in environments where there are no humans.

From a cyber security point of view, we’ve also employed the best security programmers and analysts so that it’s near impossible for someone to hack into the software.

What are the biggest challenges to developing new technology?

One of the biggest challenges to autonomous technology is getting machines and implements to communicate with each other.

At the moment we have basic Canbus and Isobus systems, which allow machines and implements to share information, but there needs to be a greater level of compatibility for an autonomous tractor to have full control of an implement.

Isobus also only tends to be fitted on more complex machinery like sprayers, drills and balers, but ideally we need it on machinery such as ploughs and cultivators so that the tractor can control the settings.

How will farm machinery technology change over the next 5 to 50 years?

In the short term, I think we’ll start to see greater levels of automation creeping into farm machinery and hopefully, it won’t be too long before fully automated machines are working in farmers’ fields.

The next step, which is still a little way off, is for these machines to start communicating with each other to co-ordinate tasks and work out how to do a job in the most efficient and profitable way.

It is also possible autonomous machines will be able to communicate outside the farm business. This means they could co-ordinate logistics with a haulage firm or inform a central storage facility how much crop is coming in and what its moisture content is.

Beyond that, it’s pretty hard to tell. But for broad-acre arable at least it’s likely the format of tractor and implement will continue for the foreseeable future, even if it is driving and thinking for itself.

Dan Bloch