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Can we really have autonomous tractors?

Kinze’s autonomous project definitely got people talking and thinking, which also created a proof of concept so we know it can be done.

I believe there are several stepping stones that need to happen between where we are today and widely used autonomous vehicles though.

First, we need to have stable wireless communications between vehicles in the field and vehicle to office.  There have been some strides towards this already, we just need a bit of time on it to make sure it is stable, timely, and is not limited by distance.

This springboards into being able to control one vehicle in the field from another, which there has already been some work on as well with combines and grain carts, allowing syncing of the vehicles to unload on the go.

Step two of this would then be to completely remove the operator from the tractor, and the combine operator could “dock” a grain cart to follow the combine, then “undock” to park the grain cart and leave it stationary.

The next step in the process would be to have a vehicle that would be autonomous but still have an operator as John Deere has indicated.  This allows for someone to keep an eye on everything, and stop the operation if something goes wrong.

I think the final step in the journey to a fully autonomous vehicle is to have two vehicles running in the same field, with one operator.  For instance, a farmer may plant with two tractors and two planters, and control one of them remotely from the cab of the other tractor.  That still allows for some “windshield observation” to quickly stop a system that malfunctions.

I’m not sure on the order of these things, but I believe we will see all of the above items on the market before we see a fully autonomous vehicle controlled from the office.

Some farmers would adopt this technology today, but of course there are others that would not be as quick to jump on board, and would want to see it work for a while first.  The major driving factor in farmer and industry adoption will ultimately be driven by the price of the technology.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on this subject – please post in the comments section!

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