I was very excited to see a link to the following article appear in my twitter stream the other day.
Excited because I’ve been saying to people for a while now that the technology to create autonomous tractors exists, and has existed for a while now. Don’t tell me they can do collision detection on a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A380 traveling at over 1000km/hour but it’s too hard to put collision detection on my tractor that travels through our paddocks at less than 30km/hour. Auto steer technology has been around for 10 years or more and new tractors are now being sold with telematic capabilities. Releasing autonomous tractors seems the next logical step.
It will be a while yet before I no longer need to drive a tractor, but this is a technology disruption that Agriculture needs. The basic setup for getting work done in a paddock has never really changed. Horses were once used to power the implements to plant and till paddocks. Tractors replaced them but we still talk about tractors in terms of the horsepower they provide to pull whatever is behind them. To get more labor efficient and cover more ground in a day, tractors and their associated implements have been getting progressively bigger and more complex as time has gone on. Bigger tractors and more horsepower inevitably come at a cost. A big cost. Both in terms of up-front investment, but also in maintenance as specialist technicians are often required for repairs and servicing.
If you remove the labor component from driving a tractor, you not only save the costs of having to build a cab as shown on the ‘Spirit’ tractor in the article, you more importantly remove the reason for needing to build bigger and bigger machines. Add to this new tractor the efficiency of a diesel-electric engine(s!), and this inventor claims to have come up with a driver less tractor that will be cost competitive with current tractors of a comparable size. That is compelling.
Yes there are liability and logistical issues to be sorted out with these machines, and yes there will be the inevitable teething issues and horror stories about these tractors when they first start to be adopted. But the economics I just outlined will ensure these issues get solved. When they do, it won’t be a moment too soon.