DES MOINES, Iowa — For years, Americans have been told that self-driving technology is improving and driverless vehicles are right around the corner.
Finally, they’re here, but to catch a glimpse of them, you’ll need to go to a farm rather than looking down the city streets.
Starting this fall, 14-tonne green tractors capable of plowing day and night without anyone sitting in the cab, or even watching nearby, will roll off the assembly line at the John Deere plant in Waterloo, in Iowa, marking the era of self-sustaining agriculture.
The development follows more than a decade of effort from the world’s largest agricultural equipment maker and marks a milestone for automation advocates, who have been explaining for years why driverless cars aren’t everything. totally ready for prime time.
“I’m happy to see that they’re coming out and will boost other technologies,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and self-driving car expert.
Deere isn’t yet saying how much the self-driving tractors will cost, but the new technology will be added to tractors that sell for about $500,000, said Ben Haber, a company spokesman. The company plans to operate the autonomous tractors on 10 to 50 farms by this fall before dramatically increasing the number in subsequent years.
Over the past decade, the supposedly imminent launch of autonomous vehicles on city streets and highways has been repeatedly pushed back as companies struggle to ensure their safety.
But, notes Rajkumar, tractors have it easier because they don’t have to deal with other vehicles, pedestrians or the complexities of an urban scene. Tractors can use consistent GPS data, unlike cars which can lose contact while driving through tunnels or in the middle of tall buildings.
Or as Deere production manager Joel Dawson put it, “You’re not going to see a crosswalk in most cornfields in Iowa or Nebraska.
Modern tractors are already equipped with GPS guides that manage steering and turns to ensure optimal ploughing, sowing and harvesting. They also use real-time data feeds to make changes if needed due to soil conditions, amount of fertilizer applied, or other factors.
The autonomous tractor will now allow farmers to hook a plow behind a tractor, start the machine with the flick of a smart phone, and then let it rumble through a field on its own.
The driverless tractors are equipped with six pairs of cameras that work like human eyes and can provide a 360-degree image. When filtered by computer algorithms, the tractor is able to determine where it is in the field and will stop abruptly if there is anything unknown in its path.
Farmers often grow crops on different plots of land several kilometers apart. So while the tractor is plowing in one field, a farmer can work in another, drive to town for supplies, or spend time with family at home. Given that less than 2% of Americans work on farms and rural populations have been shrinking for decades, self-driving tractors should also help address chronic labor shortages.
The shift to increasingly sophisticated tractors is part of a movement that emphasizes planting, fertilizing and harvesting during narrow time windows when conditions are perfect. If new technology can help farmers finish a job when soil and air temperatures are just before wet weather approaches, for example, it can mean bigger harvests months later.
“If I don’t plow this field today and it rains tonight it could mean we don’t plant the field for a week and that has real financial implications in many operations,” said Ryan Berman, who works on agricultural technology issues at Iowa State University. “If you can move another 80 or 100 acres into that optimal window, it can be worth thousands of dollars every year, probably tens of thousands.
Still, the tractor won’t be for everyone.
Ed Anderson, director of research for the Iowa Soybean Association, cited the substantial cost and noted that some farmers prefer hands-on labor over overseeing operations via smartphone.
Another industry giant, CNH Industrial, is also developing autonomous capabilities for its Case and New Holland tractors, and other companies plan to use many smaller autonomous machines to handle other agricultural work.