The Next Big Little Tractor Trend

December 13, 2013 06:44 PM
The Next Big Little Tractor Trend

A David and Goliath story plays out on the farm

When it comes to implements and tractors, bigger equipment has dominated. In fact, the largest tractors have gotten heavier by a rate of about 900 lb. each year for the past 50 years, says Scott Shearer, who chairs the Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department at The Ohio State University.

Weight requirements hover around 110 lb. to 120 lb. of tractor mass needed per horsepower, so higher horsepower tractors are heavier out of necessity, he says. That trend is likely to continue until the upper limits are reached.

"One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the compaction penalty that equipment size is playing today," Shearer says. "The genetic potential of the crop may never be realized because of the compaction issue."

However, there is one technology on the horizon that could stall the heavier tractor trend and even reverse it.

"I’m suggesting we may see a day when we go to 40-hp or 50-hp tractors. Perhaps the farm 15 or 20 years from now will be using fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles," Shearer says.

Thinking small has big possibilities in the future. "For now, big is beautiful," admits Christophe Pelletier, an agriculture and food futurist. "After all, more horsepower pushes bigger, wider equipment—letting you work more acres with fewer operators. But once we remove the man from the machine, we can begin to reimagine the machine."

The small solution. A smaller tractor trend would play out in one of two ways. First would be a manned tractor leading multiple autonomous tractors behind it in a V formation (similar to how Canada geese fly). The second method would involve no live operators at all.

"Theoretically, you could run your farm from the kitchen table," says IBM global agriculture leader Rick Morris. "When tractors can be run robotically, you could run your farm from almost anywhere in the world."

A farmer would "direct traffic" from his or her computer, sending machinery on predesigned routes to plant, deliver inputs and harvest the crop.

"We’ll need to challenge people to think differently," Pelletier says. "You might become a machine manager rather than a driver. You won’t need to go across the whole field—you’ll just go where you need to go. An autonomous fleet could also operate 24 hours, seven days a week. They don’t need to sleep. You could do whatever you want at any time you want."

Several OEM and university researchers have built prototypes of autonomous vehicles. One of them is Tim Stombaugh, professor of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Kentucky. Stombaugh and his colleagues developed the University of Kentucky Autonomous Tractor—or "UKAT" for short.

This pint-sized 30-hp tractor couldn’t keep pace with the workload of today’s popular tractors, could it? Of course not, Stombaugh says. But three could. For example, a 235-hp tractor that operates for 10 hours at 65% efficiency pulling a 16-row planter at 5 mph can plant around 156 acres a day. Three of the 30-hp UKAT tractors that operate for 24 hours at 70% efficiency pulling a 2-row planter at 5 mph can cover the same ground.

"The bottom line is, three autonomous tractors really could do the work of one 235-hp tractor," Stombaugh says. "They may be little, but they can accomplish big things."

Australian farmer and consultant James Hassall has kept close watch on advances in precision ag the past 15 years. He says he is excited about the prospect of autonomous machinery’s impact on scalability and redundancy.

"Considerable research is being conducted into the development of a whole range of smaller and smarter agricultural machines that can manage agricultural systems more efficiently and on a finer scale than could ever be achieved with the equipment commercially available today," he says.

That is, you could easily adjust your equipment needs, and if one machine breaks down, a substitute could take its place while it is repaired. Another example, why not develop a weed-zapping robot that could deliver microbursts of herbicide exactly where it is needed? That system would be much more efficient than spraying the entire field, Hassall says.

"A small solar-powered robot could be continually monitoring weed populations using cameras and image analysis software to map weed species and densities," he says. "It could also be fitted with microspray equipment, which could apply the most appropriate herbicide to the weed detected. It could even be fitted with other sensors that could monitor other field characteristics, such as soil moisture and nitrate levels on a fine scale."

There are safety advantages, as well. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has suggested that robot applications on the farm could prevent about 2,900 accidental deaths during the next 10 years. At the same time, this technology must be developed with obstacle avoidance and other safety measures in place to ensure they don’t become the cause of on-farm accidents.

All in all, it’s not so hard to see how small tractors could become the next big thing in agriculture. 

You can e-mail Ben Potter at

The agriculture industry could be in for some high-tech changes in the next decade. To catch a glimpse of what the farm’s future looks like, visit

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