The autonomous tractor will now let farmers hook up a plow behind the machine, start it with a swipe of a smart phone, and then leave it to rumble up and down 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. Using computer algorithms, the tractor is able to determine where it is in the field and will abruptly stop if there is anything unfamiliar in its path.
Farmers often grow crops on parcels of land that are miles apart, so while the tractor plows in one field, a farmer can work at another, drive into town for supplies or spend time with their families at home. Given that less than 2 percent of Americans work on farms and rural populations have dwindled for decades, the autonomous tractors also are expected to help with chronic labor shortages.
The shift to ever-more-sophisticated tractors is part of a movement that emphasizes planting, fertilizing and harvesting during narrow windows of time when conditions are perfect. If new technology can help farmers complete a job when soil and air temperatures are just right ahead of approaching wet weather, for example, it can mean more plentiful crops months later.
“If I don’t get this field tilled today and it rains tonight, that could mean we don’t get the field planted for another week, and that has real cost implications in a lot of operations,” said Ryan Berman, who works on agricultural technology issues at Iowa State University.
“If you can move an extra 80 or 100 acres into that optimal window, that can be worth thousands of dollars every year, probably tens of thousands.”