The Self-Driving Tractor is Here

Turning heads at the recent Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, were a couple of prototype tractors that gave producers a peek at what very well may be the future of farm equipment: autonomous tractors.

While the non-agricultural world continues to be wowed by autonomous vehicles that are making their way onto roadways throughout the world, the agriculture world is equally embracing the technology that will allow operators to control tractor functions by wire, from a place that can be far away from the traditional tractor seat.

When first stepping up to the New Holland T8 tractor on display in Boone, its appearance wasn’t much different than any of the other equipment on the lot. But underneath, this prototype tractor gave producers a taste of how their farm may operate in the future.

The New Holland NH Drive tractor is fully autonomous, which means a producer could monitor and operate, through a computer or laptop device, equipment operations from virtually anywhere in the world…24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This prototype has a cab, which means that the tractor can operate with an operator when necessary, offering flexibility to producers who use the equipment in both autonomous and “manual” operations.

Just down the street at Farm Progress sat another concept tractor, and this one took a more futuristic look. That’s because while the tractor looked not much different from a Case IH Magnum tractor, it was missing something: the cab.

The prototype contained onboard systems that could control equipment being pulled through a field. Remotely, an operator adjusts the various parameters of the job from the office. It definitely caught the eye of those attending the show.

So just how do these machines work? Using multiple sensing systems built throughout the tractor (radar, LIDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging) and onboard video cameras, the tractor can sense stationary or moving obstacles in the field, stopping if it senses a problem until an operator makes necessary adjustments. GPS signals also help guide the tractor.

“An autonomous tractor like this could seamlessly integrate into an existing farm machinery fleet, with minimal operational changes,” says Leo Bose, Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) manager for Case IH. “Multiple autonomous vehicles could be put to work in one field or separate fields, on the same tasks or consecutive ones. It could allow a person working with no employees to operate multiple tractors, or could complement very large operations that have challenges finding ample skilled workers.”

And while these tractors may be a few years away from being available at your local dealership, the speed of technology in this area is breathtaking, and could be the next major evolution in agricultural machinery.

“The integration of autonomous tractors into the fleet will still mean producers will be a critical link to ensure proper tractor maintenance is performed at regular intervals,” Bose says. “But the automated functions within these machines will provide instant feedback; such technology is already being implemented on current tractors with the Case IH AFS Connect telematics solution. That will ensure that producers are able to not only know when their equipment is in need of maintenance, but also alert them as to possible upcoming maintenance intervals. That will make planning and scheduling more efficient.”

“Farming will become increasingly responsible for ensuring the availability of food produced in an efficient and sustainable way,” says Carlo Lambro, brand president of New Holland Agriculture. “An autonomous tractor that is able to work day and night helps solve the problem of a lack of specialized labor during the most intense seasons, makes 100 percent use of the periods of favorable weather for various farming activities and maximizes the rational use of resources.”