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Deere's autonomous tractor at work. Photo: Deere & Co.

Can Tractors Drive Themselves?

Written: April 2019

American consumers have a strong demand for unblemished fruits and vegetables. Satisfying the demand requires hundreds of thousands of workers who have the skills to plant the fields, tend the crops, harvest the produce, and pack it and prepare it for shipment to markets in the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, we have a huge shortage of workers with these skills. 

The problem is even bigger in Japan where the number of people working on farms dropped from 2.2 million in 2004 to 1.7 million in 2014.  Small farmers are retiring and, in many cases, not being replaced. To improve productivity, the government has encouraged farm consolidation by larger companies. Larger companies can apply additional business skills to the industry. The consolidation is happening but is limited by the availability of farm workers. The current labor shortage is more than 70,000 full-time employees but experts predict the unmet demand will rise to 130,000 over the next five years.[i]  The European agriculture sector is experiencing similar labor shortages. The root cause of the labor shortages around the world is older farmers are retiring and young people are not finding farming an attractive or lucrative career opportunity.

Compounding the problem of labor shortages is the increased demand for food. The UN estimates the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050.[ii]  In addition to labor shortages and increased demand, a third factor is the need to increase yields for farmers to meet the demand.

Agricultural robots can help increase production yields and fill the labor gap. Robotic solutions range from autonomous tractors to robotic arms. Agricultural robots can automate boring and repetitive tasks. They can also enable farmers to focus more on managing and improving the overall production yields. Some of the specific tasks robots can fulfill in agriculture include:

  • Harvesting and picking
  • Controlling weeds
  • Autonomous mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying, and thinning
  • Sampling and categorizing genetic characteristics
  • Sorting and packing

Harvesting and picking is one of the most widely adopted robotic applications in agriculture due to the precision and speed of robots. The results are improved yields and reduced waste from crops left in the field. However, these applications can be difficult to automate. The RIA Robotics Online Marketing Team explained,

A robotic system designed to pick sweet peppers encounters many obstacles. Vision systems have to determine the location and ripeness of the pepper in harsh conditions, including the presence of dust, varying light intensity, temperature swings and movement created by the wind. It still takes more than advanced vision systems to pick a pepper. A robotic arm has to navigate environments with just as many obstacles to delicately grasp and place a pepper. This process is very different from picking and placing a metal part on an assembly line. The agricultural robotic arm must be flexible in a dynamic environment and accurate enough not to damage the peppers as they’re being picked.[iii]

My reflections – 2022

Fast forward three years and it is clear the use of robotic technology in agriculture is expanding as I wrote in Robot Attitude: How Robots and Artificial Intelligence Will Make Our Lives Better.[iv] This past week at the Consumer Electronics Show, Deere & Company introduced the world’s first autonomous tractor.[v] The yellow and green tractor is basically a robotic device which can drive by itself. Robots are about to become farmhands to boost productivity.

Deere’s Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman told Axios, “The last time agriculture was on the precipice of this much change was when we were on the cusp of replacing the horse and plow. For the first time, a farm tool can do the work without a human or animal providing the labor.”[vi]

Autonomous cars on the highway still need further software development and regulatory approvals. An autonomous tractor can operate autonomously, 24 hours a day, with no human in the cab. The farmer can take the tractor to the field needing attention, configure the autonomous operation from a smartphone, leave the field to perform other tasks, and monitor the tractor from the smartphone.

The new Deere tractor has a GPS guidance system and with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to handle the desired tasks. Six cameras give the tractor a 360-degree view of the field. The AI enables the tractor to stay within a desired set of coordinates. It samples the environment three times per second and will stop if an obstacle is encountered. The tractor knows its exact location with an accuracy of one inch. It does not have to worry about stop signs and traffic lights and it can operate in total darkness.

Another innovation in autonomous devices has been introduced by startup Graze. With AI and computer vision, Graze is paving the way for an all-electric fully autonomous future of commercial lawn mowing. The target market for Graze includes landscaping companies, golf courses, corporate properties. The Graze lawn mower can reduce labor costs and increase profit margins for the landscaper. The company believes its full-electric mowers can reduce fuel costs by 75%.[vii]

[i] “Japan in Dire Need of Foreign Farm Workers,”  Fresh Plaza (2018), https://www.freshplaza.com/article/9046466/japan-in-dire-need-of-foreign-farm-workers/

[ii] “World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 2050,”  United Nations (2015), https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html

[iii] “Robotics in Agriculture: Types and Applications,”  Robotics Industries Association (2017), https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/Robotics-in-Agriculture-Types-and-Applications/74

[iv] John R. Patrick, Robot Attitude : How Robots and Artificial Intelligence Will Make Our Lives Better (2019).

[v] “Robotics in Agriculture: Types and Applications”.

[vi] Joann Muller, “Deere’s Driverless Tractor Gives Stressed Farmers a New Tool,”  Axios (2022), https://www.axios.com/deeres-driverless-tractor-gives-stressed-farmers-a-new-tool-8309937e-cf13-4edf-837a-ac81c256495d.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiospm&stream=top

[vii] “Meet Graze,”  Graze (2022), https://www.grazemowing.com/