John's World: Autonomous Tractors

September 13, 2016 11:59 AM

Maybe it’s just because we have too many engineers and science fiction fans on our farm, but the recent press coverage of an autonomous concept tractor by CNH became a hot topic on our farm recently. I don’t think we were the only farmers to take notice. 

There have been self-driving tractor systems for a few years, but until you see a tractor without a cab, I don’t think the implications of truly autonomous machinery sinks in. Skepticism was immediate and robust. 

What if the machine plugs up? How about transporting down the road? What about liability insurance?

But the truth is, between an all-out push by technology companies from Google to Tesla, this is not a startling or cutting edge development. In fact, I think such automation could happen even faster on farms than roads. 

Setting that debate aside, looking at this working prototype instead of a computer-generated depiction, should make it more real for producers.  

Let me zero in on just one of the implications from this glimpse of a likely future.

The in-field video is electrifying enough, but the depiction of a remote operator setup rang a bell with me. See if you notice any comparison with this operator station on our newest submarines or this control system for military drones. My point is what the tractor video shows is not wild fantasy but technology already in use for many years for similar applications.

But here’s the real kicker for me. Who could this remote operator be, and where could the operator be located? The answers are practically anyone and anywhere. 

What if your off-farm sibling could take a late tillage shift monitoring from his condo in downtown Chicago? Suddenly mobility or strength problems aren’t an issue. 

My point is, these tractor advances will instigate many changes, but the one of the biggest in my opinion is what the picture of a farmer will be.

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