Autonomous agriculture: More than just driverless tractors

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



In this article, we take a look at AVs in agriculture and ask:

    • Why is autonomous tech so useful in agriculture?
    • Will driverless change the nature of farming?
    • Can autonomous tech solve agriculture’s ‘people problem’?

Generally, whenever AVs or driverless or self-driving technology is mentioned, conversation turns to road travel, increased mobility and even things like how to better use our commutes or how such tech will change our cities. Rarely do we ask how AVs might change our countryside. But, as it turns out, there are enormous opportunities for, and developments in, autonomous tech in agriculture.


Back in 2019, we reached out to a group of farmers to hear what they thought about the oncoming automation of farming. Though each had their reservations about the tech, there was a sense that the introduction of driverless machines was inevitable. Gary Trueman, an ex-dairy farmer who now owns a pasture holding in Lincolnshire, England, said it was simply “impossible to avoid.”


A few years on, it’s becoming clear that he was absolutely right. In almost every process which takes place in the agricultural sector, we can now see autonomous technology making inroads. Though heavy-duty machinery like the tractors and combines we associate with rolling countryside have used driver assistance features for some time, and continue to advance with trials and testing, development looks beyond tractors alone.


Why is autonomous tech so useful in agriculture?


Targeted technology like John Deere’s ‘Seed and Spray’ drone-like device provides solutions to specific problems and reduces the need for both human direction and labour. This machine, for example, is able to find and treat weeds within a set perimeter autonomously, and it does so much faster than a human team could. Plus, it will only become more capable with the imminent rollout of 5G.


Debbie Vale, a multi-disciplined farmer with experience in both the UK and New Zealand, talked of using drones to perform tasks such as herding sheep when we last spoke. Autonomous machinery like this just takes that idea one step forward. It builds on well-established principals too.



Image: Unsplash

Read more of what our farmers had to say in Autonomous agriculture – the future of farming?

The first autonomous tractor was developed back in 1969 and most farmers are familiar with the advanced GPS mapping and driver assistance features the majority of new models boast. Autonomous versions are now in operation on commercial farms around the globe and offer benefits including 24-hour operation, advanced obstacle detection, tandem operation and more. Despite what some our farmers thought, autonomous vehicles also promise to improve safety in what is often a high-risk environment.


Will driverless change the nature of farming?


That said, and as with many driverless vehicles, cost limits how such technology may be used. As Gary explained in 2019, "Big corporate farms will likely embrace any new technology if it helps increase profits in some way. Smaller farms will have technology fed down to them over, most likely, decades, so the impact will be slower.”


Inevitably then, while costs remain high, driverless tech will cause a rift within the agricultural community. While that clearly puts larger operations at an advantage, it’s not necessarily bad news for farmers with smaller holdings. Timothy Berry, an organic beef farmer and former dairy farmer from Devonshire, England, explained that such a divide would simply force smaller farms to embrace their niche and specialise in particular, most likely low-tech, methods. This might ultimately help smaller holdings become more profitable as premium products can charge premium prices.


Can autonomous tech solve agriculture’s ‘people problem’?


Time, energy and passionate agricultural workers could be freed up for such enterprises by the continued implementation of self-driving farm vehicles. By allowing AVs to complete the most strenuous and least appealing jobs, the dwindling agricultural workforce could be put to better use.

In 2015, the Hands Free Hectare Project set out to show exactly how that could be achieved. To do that, one hectare of farmland was worked for a full year using just small, autonomous machines. In that time, no human even set foot onto the land being worked. Since then, the project has successfully harvested two seasons of grain using only using autonomous machinery, including tractors and drones. If such projects could be expanded, or such methods replicated on a larger scale, it could provide a strong solution to the people problem in agriculture.


Of course, there are reservations until new tech is proven safe, efficient and effective and while initial costs for such technology remain high, all but the largest commercial farms will be cut out of these new opportunities. Plus, there is an argument to be made that increasing reliance on automated tech may create a new people problem in agriculture. Reliance on advanced technology, it’s been suggested, might prompt those with site-specific knowledge and understanding of often overlooked, but vitally important, practices like soil management leave the industry. Will the people who are passionate about driverless tech in agriculture be as concerned about proper maintenance of land and livestock? It’s yet to be seen.


Still, driverless tech will change the way many farms operate - with fewer people on site, increased yields, more targeted use of chemicals, even new opportunities for green initiatives such as rewilding unused land. For all those reasons, agricultural AVs seem to provide a positive way forward.


What do you think? Will autonomous tech trickle down from large commercial projects to smaller farms? Will the people on the ground be responsible for adoption of AVs? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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