Japanese manufacturers are pressing ahead with the development of self-driving tractors and agricultural equipment – not just with the aim of driving down labour costs, but also to tackle a shortage of staff.
The average age of farmers in Japan keeps climbing and although land consolidation into larger farms brings economies of scale, recruitment of seasoned, highly skilled operators is becoming more difficult with the decrease in the number of farming households.
Manufacturers such as Iseki, Kubota and Yanmar have been encouraged to pursue the autonomy goal by a call in their government’s food and farming policy to embrace information communications technology, robotics and related technologies in the development of new products.
For field operations, these leading companies agree that the “one operator, two machines” concept is the way to go initially because it significantly increases the productivity of a single driver while using conventional tractors modified to mimic the actions and movements of the operator’s machine.
According to The Japan Times, the government has paved the way for commercial use of self-driving agricultural machinery by setting out guidelines on safety standards, and there are plans to establish a system by 2020 that allows farmers to operate such machines with only remote monitoring or other means.
Kubota looks to be ahead of the game: it publicly demonstrated a driverless tractor, auto rice transplanter and combine harvester for the first time in January this year and now has an autonomous tractor that farmers in Japan can buy.
The first of the Kubota Farm Pilot Series of agricultural machines is a 60hp tractor said to cost about 50% more than its conventional counterpart thanks to the GNSS guidance, monitoring and safety systems it requires.
Guidance accuracy on the ground will be further enhanced by the recent launches of “Michibiki” satellites to augment global satellite positioning system signals in Japan.