Autonomous technology has no need for a heavy, costly cab. However, they will not disappear in the short term.
A veritable flood of autonomous agricultural vehicles is now arriving as the multi-national tractor and machinery manufacturers begin to enter this expanding market. The launch of the autonomous John Deere R8, the jointly developed autonomous robot by Krone and Lemken, the autonomous tractor by Case IH that is now on the road in Brazil are just a few recent examples.
Do these moves spell the beginning of the end for the luxury cab?
Autonomous technology has no need for a heavy, costly cab, because robotic tractors don’t need a driver to safely and precisely navigate the fields.
A tractor without an implement is, however, completely useless. It’s what you put on it that does the real work. But there’s the rub – operating an implement without supervision is an entirely different proposition. It requires a lot of sensors and smart electronics to assess the quality of work, adjust settings and detect faults.
A smart machine must communicate seamlessly with the autonomous tractor. A blockage, for example, is easily solved by an alert driver – who simply lifts the machine and drives backwards a bit. Doing that autonomously is a completely different story.
This illustrates how there’s still much to solve autonomously. This is partly due to multi-national tractor makers tending to keep their software secret from independent machine manufacturers. This puts up barriers that slows down the development of fast and precise communication between different brands of tractors and implements.
Moreover, how do you move between big fields on large farms, such as those in the US, or along Europe’s narrow roads? Robots, without a cab, need transporting on a flatbed truck or towed on a trailer behind a tractor. This is possibly the main reason larger farmers are unlikely to be investing in fully autonomous, high power tractors any time soon. It’s still a bridge too far.
The € 20,000 you haven’t spent on a cab is better invested in increasing capacity
For smaller farmers, however, specialised, light and compact, autonomous field robots offer opportunities. When such a field robot can weed 5ha of onions or carrots in one day without any chemicals or labour, transport between fields is not an issue. And the € 20,000 you haven’t spent on a cab is better invested in increasing capacity by buying an extra robot.
One answer, proposed by John Deere with its Sesam 2, offers autonomy – with or without a cab. It’s an ingenious idea that enables a cab to be, quickly and wirelessly, fitted or removed from the front linkage. Simply drive to the field, ‘park’ the cab in a corner and set it off for autonomous operation. Then you can go home and keep an eye on several robots while working in the office.
One thing is for sure: Although luxury cabs are slowly dipping below the horizon, they are not completely out of sight yet.
Should you buy a cab-free autonomous tractor, or something of a more traditional design? In Future Farming’s latest episode of Field Trials, Ian McDonald, crop innovations specialist for the provincial ministry of agriculture in Ontario, Canada, describes the current autonomous equipment market as “a wild west” of ideas and concepts. Check out the podcast!
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