Now Cropping Up: Robo-Farming

The bright red, driverless tractor drags the tiller in a perfect line in a south Indian field, makes a turn at the edge of the property, encounters a test dummy and then stalls, not knowing what to do.

India’s Mahindra & Mahindra , one of the biggest suppliers of smaller tractors to the U.S., and other manufacturers are racing to develop what they see as the future of farming: robo-tractors and other farming equipment to help produce more food, more sustainably at a lower cost.

John Deere has tractors and combines on the market that free the driver in the cabin from the actual driving so he or she can monitor the crops and adjust pesticide, water and soil levels. Technology from Agco Corp.’s Fendt lets several driverless tractors follow a lead tractor driven by a human. Japanese firms Kubota and Yanmar are planning to launch driverless tractors that they expect to be popular with elderly farmers.

The next generation is tractors that can drive entirely by themselves. After that: ones that can plant, fertilize and spray pesticides. London-based CNH Industrial is testing a tractor that has no driver’s cabin, with farmers expected to monitor planting and harvesting remotely.

But there are plenty of obstacles.

The global positioning systems and sensors to steer around hindrances or read different kinds of soil and slopes need improvement.

And the industry anticipates pushback from people whose livelihood could be threatened. In India, for instance, hundreds of millions of farmers make up the country’s largest voter group. “We have decided it has to be a gradual process of migrating the farmers,” said Aravind Bharadwaj, chief technology officer for farm equipment at Mahindra.

Still, there is a lucrative opportunity to retool an entire industry. A Goldman Sachs report estimated the potential demand for driverless tractors and other equipment in the next five years at $45 billion.

Agricultural machinery giants and startups say they are piggybacking on driverless-car research to revolutionize farming. For example, John Deere’s GPS-guided tractors can ensure no part of a field is planted or sprayed twice. Using big data and artificial intelligence, the company expects to eventually have tractors that can deliver a different amount of fertilizer or pesticide or water for each plant depending on need.

“The more we can automate with computers, with data science and laser-like actions, [the more it] will help save the farmer a ton of money and make production more sustainable,” said John Stone, senior vice president in charge of development at Deere & Co.

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