Before I go too far into this column on robot tractors, I want to be clear. I'm aware of the efforts by companies in Europe and Australia to automate the use of tractors. I know about Automated Tractor Corp and the Spirit Tractor in Minnesota, and of course we're aware of the automation work Kinze has been doing both for automated grain cart systems and even a "planting tractor."
Yet during the Farm Progress Show, the buzz was robot tractors. And frankly I think the Farm Progress Show came close to trending on Twitter given all the attention paid to two tractors from two brands – Case IH and New Holland.
So a little about the tractors, and a little more about what's driving this trend to automation.
First the Case IH machine just makes a statement. The cab-free design of the machine – the designer is the same person who came up with the innovative Optum tractor (the new Case IH look) – does catch your attention. I did have one person mention to me it looked like it could – at any moment – transform into a robot. In fact, in the case of the Automated Concept Vehicle from Case IH there's definitely more than meets the eye.
The Case IH ACV is based on a Magnum 370 CVT tractor, with all the same horsepower and power features that tractor offers – in effect it's an all-around tractor for tillage, planting, and even haying. Essentially any field task that takes time and is repetitive.
Second is the New Holland machine. Same mother company, two different brands. And in the case of New Holland, they kept the cab in place. Which shows you the options available. Both brands can offer this tech in machines with cabs (thought Case IH chose the more stunning cab-free approach for its debut).
At New Holland we learned that farmers like to drive machines, and with the cab it's easier to transport the tractor to the field where it can begin work (no one mentioned how the farmer then gets home). Also learned that this tech can be packaged for use in existing tractors, which means a future automation retrofit may be possible for later model brands. The initial New Holland prototype is based on a T8 machine.
These tractors both use similar automation approaches with sensor packages that can "see" the field, the work, and any obstacles ahead. Combine that with precision a/b lines with GPS steering, and you can see how close we really are to automation. In fact, Bret Lieberman, who heads up the New Holland line for North America, notes that a self-driving tractor doing field work today is already 90% automated. In many cases, the farmer is along for the ride.
So why the robots?
The interest in these two automated machines goes beyond the novelty of a driver-free field performer and falls squarely into the world of "we have a labor problem." Too many farmers I've interacted with in the last few months have lamented the challenge of getting good workers. In the beginning, when we started going bigger and reducing labor it was about cutting the cost of doing something. Big round bales from Vermeer meant making hay was more economical because you didn't have to pay those day laborers, but even back in 1971 when the first machines were launched, it was getting harder to find workers.
Today, that's almost challenge No. 1 for farms as they get larger. You need operators to do the work, and with city dwellers less farm-aware, even finding people who want these jobs is getting a challenge. And when you do, they know so little about operating machinery that training becomes a challenge.
So get rid of that farm worker, put a robot in the field and get that work done while you may drive alongside in another machine, or go off to another field to do more work.
Consider that – you could have a tractor doing fall tillage while you're in an adjacent field finishing harvest. And that's just one productivity booster.
Once we figure out the safety issues and the regulatory rules that will allow for fully automated machines to work in the field, chances are we'll see the rise of the robots, but in a good way.