Self-driving tractors relieve stress in agricultural industry

Driverless tractors are needed to meet the growing demand for food.
5 September 2018

Global food demand is going to increase by 70 percent by 2050. Farmers would need to rely on driverless tractors not only to tackle labor shortage, but also increase yield. Source: Shutterstock

Farmers in the US are increasingly put under stress, as the population continues to grow while the amount of arable land is in steep decline.

According to World Bank data, the US has lost over 10 million hectares of farmable land in the last decade, while the population has increased by 25 million in the same time frame. Compounding this issue, the agriculture industry is also facing labor shortages.

This means farmers are expected to produce more food with fewer resources. To combat this problem, farmers are now looking to using self-driving tractors to increase crop yields.

The farming industry is in stiff competition for skilled labor with the construction, mining and trucking industries. Fully autonomous tractors can help automate many of the common tasks currently undertaken manually by humans.

For example, tractors developed by Bear Flag Robotics are outfitted with spraying and mowing operations for specialty crops such as nuts, fruits, and grapes. Additionally, it also has tools for common ground prep tasks such as discing and ripping.

As a result, a single supervisor can operate a fleet of vehicles, where traditionally a crew is needed. Autonomous tractors also allow work to be done around the clock, even in harsh weather.

Rohit Sharma, a partner at True Ventures told CNBC in an interview, “Imagine a farmer, by the time they wake up at 5 AM in the morning, his or her field is already tilled. The machine can wake up at 2 AM, decide it’s the right time to do it, and go pick the right implement from the garage or the barn, then till the fields. By the time the farmer has had his morning coffee, the machines have accomplished a set of things that prepare them to address more complex, everyday decision-making.”

True Ventures recently invested US$3.5 million in Bear Flag Robotics during a round of seed funding. Besides Bear Flag, other tractor makers including Deere and CNS Global are also in the midst of developing their own fully autonomous tractors.

Interesting to note, the size of tractors matter. Autonomous tractors are generally much smaller, which reduces soil compaction and helps add to the potential yield gains.

In fact, according to a Goldman Sachs report, autonomous farming equipment can increase yields by up to 15 percent.

It’s not just about dealing with labor shortages and improving operations. The world is growing and expecting more food, and farmers need to produce more to keep up with the demand.

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted that global food demand will increase 70 percent by 2050.

If the world is to be fed, not only do we need to boost agricultural production but also yield. This cannot be achieved by humans alone — the industry must take advantage of machines to produce enough crops to meet global demand.