21 autonomous tractor projects around the world

The majority of these concern (small) robots and small to medium-sized tractors. One manufacturer dared to work on large tractors. We took a detailed look at 21 projects around the world.
Are we and is agriculture ready for autonomous tractors? The answer to that question mainly depends on who you ask. If you asked Dutch arable farmer Cornelis Sieling that question 57 years ago, he likely would have said ‘within a few years’.

World’s first fully automatic autonomous ploughing tractor
As long ago as 1962, he developed the Agri-Robot, the world’s first fully automatic autonomous ploughing tractor using a feeler wheel in the furrow for navigation. The video underneath shows this remarkable machine as it was filmed in 1962. Even then, the shortage of (competent) labourers formed the most important argument for the development.

In 1999, it was John Deere that suggested a cableless autonomous version of its 5310 tractor. That tractor can now be found in the manufacturer’s museum with a video next to it showing its possibilities, such as pulling a multi-row sprayer in an orchard.

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This is repetitive and ‘hazardous’ work on a practically enclosed site. Recently, John Deere displayed an autonomous, articulated electric tractor equipped with tracks at the Agritechnica exhibition.

Another 10 years to wait
Ask ‘conventional’ tractor manufacturers when they think we will see larger autonomous tractors and vehicles appear on fields (in Europe), and many will (officially) say that it will take another 10 years. Not because of the technology, as that has already been mature enough for years.

With GPS, autopilot, cameras, lasers (LiDAR), headland management and TIM, all the components required for autonomy are available on board. However, they are currently still used to provide assistance and support to the driver. Not only manufacturers, but also researchers are put off mainly because of legislation and safety issues, but also because of the costs of the technology.

“The automotive industry is so big and far more advanced than the agricultural sector,” explained researcher Mikkel Fly Kragh in Future Farming No. 1 2019. “But once the autonomous car becomes available, I think the agricultural sector will soon follow suit, in about 10 years or so. From a technical point of view, it is possible tomorrow, but legislation and customer interest still stand in the way.”

Nevertheless, all tractor manufacturers, whether they will admit it or not, and in secret or not, are working on the development of autonomous tractors. The most visible example can be found in Japan, where autonomous (agricultural) machinery and vehicles are already permitted under the law. That usually means smaller models, but the level of autonomy is equally suitable for use in larger models.

According to a report in 2018 by Global Market Insights, the demand for autonomous agricultural machinery will exceed 3 million items and will account for a market size of $ 180 billion by 2024.

Small but refined
Smaller models equipped with a tool or machine no wider than the vehicle itself are also easier to secure with cameras and anti-collision devices to give the vehicle enough time to detect a child playing or an amorous couple amongst tall crops, which are the most frequently mentioned causes of concern. Small models are also ideal for use in a more or less enclosed working environment such as an orchard or vineyard.

Startups think outside the box
It is usually the numerous startups, which tend to think outside the box and in some cases have no experience in agriculture, that develop small robots for crop-related activities, such as sowing, applying fertiliser or crop protection products, carrying out inspections and hoeing site specifically. Sometimes, these activities may even target individual plants.

At the same time, tractor manufacturers are convinced that in 10 to 20 years’ time, large tractors will still be necessary to provide traction during soil cultivation and harvesting.