Driverless Tractors Move Closer to a Farm Near You

Sep 5, 2016

As driverless cars begin to roam the streets, autonomous farm machinery is not far behind. The same fundamental technology that allows a vehicle to maneuver through city traffic may someday let a farmer send his tractor off to work on its own.

New Holland, the Pennsylvania-based equipment maker, demonstrated one of its large tractors outfitted to run autonomously during the recent Farm Progress Show in Boone.

With the self-driving technology, the tractor can position itself on a field and, for example, pull an air seeder while a "remote supervisor" monitors from a desktop computer or tablet. It uses the same radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) technologies as driverless cars, as well as mounted cameras, to identify obstacles. Dan Halliday, New Holland’s global product manager for precision land management, says those tools still need some tweaking. And the concept has to pass safety rules.

Halliday says farm equipment will benefit from safety work already underway from designers of driverless cars.

"Obviously we'll monitor that moving forwards and make sure we adhere to everything that's asked [of us]," Halliday says, "and as soon as we can, for sure it will be commercially available."

But while much of the technology is easy to adapt to farm equipment, Halliday says the complexity of jobs like harvesting or planting require additional attention.

"When you think about all the things that an operator's doing when he's in the cab, what he's monitoring, what he's changing, what he's commanding, what he's modifying throughout the day, throughout the hour, throughout the minute," Halliday says, "We need to make sure that we can automate that. So that's for sure what our research and what our priority is on."

New Holland's Dan Halliday poses with the company's autonomous tractor at the Farm Progress Show.
Credit Amy Mayer/IPR

Halliday says the autonomous system New Holland demonstrated at the Farm Progress Show can be retrofit to existing tractors, which means those tractors can also be driven by a person when the autonomous function is turned off. He declined to provide a timeline for when farmers can line up to retrofit their rigs.

Case IH also unveiled a driverless tractor, which uses the same third-party technology but was presented as a cab-less concept vehicle.