Robots, Drones and Driverless Tractors Usher In New Age of Farming

Companies offer high-tech ways to make growers more efficient.

Bloomberg News

June 27, 2024

6 Min Read
concept art of autonomous tractor scanning agricultural plot

(Bloomberg) -- Tractors plow the farm fields without drivers, guided by satellites and iPhones. Solar-powered robots tend to plants on the ground like giant outdoor Roombas, while drones fly overhead spraying the crops. 

It may sound like science fiction — perhaps Uncle Owen’s moisture farm in Star Wars — but it’s actually the future of agriculture in America, and it’s already being deployed in California vineyards and corn fields in Illinois. Automation and artificial intelligence promise to usher in a revolutionary shift for an industry long averse to change.

“We’ve really had relatively little innovation in tractors since we switched from metal wheels to rubber wheels about 100 years ago,” said Rob Myers, director of the center for regenerative agriculture at the University of Missouri. He adds that the transformation “won’t happen overnight,” as it will take time before autonomous features see wide use.

The new machinery is arriving at a time when growers are in desperate need of making farms more efficient and sustainable with fewer human operators. The American farmer is aging and the number of farms is dwindling, while the industry has been under pressure from sliding prices for key crops including corn and soybeans. 

Here’s a closer look at how technology is reshaping agriculture.

Related:What Is a Real-Time Operating System, and Who Needs One?

Driverless Tractors

Elon Musk has a vision of US highways filled with driverless cars, yet autonomous vehicles may be easier to adapt to America’s farmlands.

Deere & Co., which has used automatic steering on its tractors since the 1990s, has started selling machines that can plow fields with farmers controlling them remotely using a smartphone. The world’s top farm machinery seller announced plans this spring to make its 2025-model 8 and 9 tractors autonomy-ready.

Driverless is the next step in so-called precision agriculture — the movement to help farmers be more exacting and eliminate human error. Deere’s new machines will hoe a straighter row without a farmer in the seat. To help get there, the company partnered with Musk’s SpaceX to equip the iconic green and yellow tractors with Starlink satellite connections providing ubiquitous connections to the internet.

In the 1990s, “when GPS started to become publicly available, we were within a foot or so,” said Than Hartsock, Deere’s vice president of precision upgrades. “Now we’re within a couple of centimeters.”

Deere’s rivals AGCO Corp. and CNH Industrial NV also are moving into autonomy, with each offering grain carts that can be partly automated. Typically, a grain cart driver has to follow the crop-cutting combine to collect harvested grain. Automating that process will eventually free up a driver to instead haul crops out of the field to a grain elevator.

Related:AI Promises Faster Oil Drilling and Even More U.S. Crude Supply

“You want to be able to take the operator out, but then the machine has to know how to automate all the things that the operator used to do,” said AGCO Chief Executive Officer Eric Hansotia.

Robots and Drones

Robots are becoming more visible on the farm, taking over some of the drudge work from growers. 

As Solinftec’s Solix Sprayer makes its way through the crops, multiple nozzles apply chemicals. The robots are designed to always stay in the fields, tending to them even when growers are far away, by recharging their batteries with built-in solar panels and a nearby docking station.

“The robots go to the corner, refuel themselves and then go back to work,” said Guilherme Guine, Solinftec’s chief sustainability officer. “You’ll have full-season-long autonomy.”

About 50 of the units, which are produced at a factory in Indiana, will be operating this season for a cost of about $50,000 each.

Drones are also catching on. Swarms of them can spray crops with less disruption than ground-based sprayers and — unlike traditional crop-dusting planes — don’t need a pilot in the air.

Guardian Agriculture recently started full-scale production at its Boston factory, making drones for the likes of agribusiness Wilbur-Ellis Co. Sales orders are so strong that “if you have thumbs, you’re down on the factory floor putting robots together,” said Adam Bercu, Guardian’s chief executive officer and a one-time Battlebots competitor. 

Battery Power

Cars, trucks and trains have gone electric, so why not tractors? 

California winery owner Ryan Carr previously used a diesel tractor to haul fruit while a generator chugged along to light up the vineyards at night, when cooler temperatures make fieldwork more comfortable. Now he can go off the grid with a Monarch Tractor electric machine powered by solar panels. Going electric, there’s little noise, emissions or fuel bill. 

“The coolest part about it is not having to breathe those diesel fumes all night long,” Carr said. And without the noise, he has been able to play music — Mexican polka and 1970s disco — for the workers.

Monarch’s electric tractor is the first machine produced at iPhone maker Foxconn’s plant in Ohio, and the startup’s technology is also in tractors made by other companies, including CNH. 

The drawback is that the $90,000 vehicle tops out at about 70 horsepower, far below the massive 400-horsepower tractors that generate the most profits in the market. Still, these smaller machines may eventually play a bigger role, supplanting the larger machines that can cost more than $1 million.

Perhaps within the next decade, “what we’re going to start to see happening is where one person is sitting in their pickup truck or on the edge of the field, running six or eight machines across the field simultaneously,” said Myers, who has spent hundreds of hours riding tractors while growing up on a farm.

Hi-Tech Gadgets

Certainly, much of the new machinery can be costly for cash-strapped farmers, especially as falling crop prices make it more difficult for many growers to splurge on new tractors. The equipment makers are trying to accommodate farmers by offering other high-tech solutions to upgrade their existing equipment. 

AGCO offers a tractor attachment that inserts seeds into the ground, 24 rows at a time. Deere continues to roll out its See & Spray technology, which uses AI to power ground rigs that scan crops to detect the difference between a plant and a weed, and then deliver the necessary treatment or herbicide.

In addition to retrofitting old machinery, companies are also focusing on keeping farmers connected to their high-tech equipment. Similar to Deere’s partnership with SpaceX, CNH is collaborating with Intelsat to equip tractors with satellite connections in Brazil, where large swaths of the Mato Grosso farm belt lack internet coverage.

Many believe these technological changes in agriculture are long overdue, considering the transformations that have already taken place with AI and automation in other businesses. Advancement has been slow not solely due to reluctant farmers, but also because only a small portion of US farms have high-quality internet and electricity supply isn’t always reliable.

“Farms don’t tend to have great grid,” said Tom McCalmont, CEO of Paired Power, whose charging system powers the Monarch tractor in Carr’s vineyard. “They often tend to be at the end of the distribution line.”

About the Author(s)

Bloomberg News

The latest technology news from Bloomberg.

Sign up for the ITPro Today newsletter
Stay on top of the IT universe with commentary, news analysis, how-to's, and tips delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like