self-driving tractor
A tractor retrofitted with a Blue White Robotics autonomous system makes its way through a citrus orchard. Autonomous tractors are being developed as a means of dealing with labor shortages. The driverless vehicles can also apply crop-protection materials without exposure to workers. (Photo: Blue White Robotics)
Kevin Hecteman
Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

By Kevin Hecteman Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

This is not your grandfather’s Farmall tractor—because this new-age machine makes its way up and down an orchard or vineyard seemingly all by itself, carrying out multiple tasks with no human required.

As technology advances, autonomous tractors are becoming more attractive to farmers looking to keep their fields productive amid chronic labor shortages.

Besides offering driverless tractors, some companies can retrofit existing machines to operate autonomously. Connor Kingman runs one such outfit in Lemoore; his autonomous gear can be installed on a variety of makes and models.

“Nobody has to be out in the field in a van or anything, or out there monitoring it,” Kingman said. “It runs 24 hours a day, only stopping for fuel.” So far, a Kingman driverless tractor is found only in vineyards. But there, it’s capable of “everything,” Kingman said—”it will disk, it will mow, spray.”

A farmer can monitor its performance through a smartphone app or an office computer, he added; if the tractor encounters an obstruction, it will stop and send an alert to the farmer, who can then check a live video feed or head to the field to investigate.

Customers tell Kingman the technology allows them to use fewer machines.

“We’ve got one ranch where there’s just one tractor, and it’s singlehandedly managing about 1,000 acres of grapes,” he said. “For the farmer, that’s not only an incredible amount of labor savings, but it’s an incredible amount of capital savings, because typically you’d have five, six tractors. Now you’re just running one, 24 hours a day, stopping just for fuel.”

There may be other benefits as well for applications of crop-protection materials.

“Taking humans out of the equation and being able to spray without worker exposure is not only a huge benefit of the cost but also in terms of safety,” Kingman said.

Blue White Robotics is also making a play for the driverless market. Alon Ascher, Blue White’s chief business officer, said a field team spends time with farmers once the equipment is installed, helping them master the learning curve. Depending on the farm, one operator can oversee anywhere from four to 12 tractors, he added.

“Every crop, farm, equipment and operation is different and requires different approach and attention,” Ascher said. “We see firsthand what are the needs, make sure performance and safety is adequate, and can provide additional solutions, from local communication networks to smart implements, if needed.”

To Ascher, the goal is to help “farmers maximize saving on labor, equipment, input usage, maintenance, communication and energy at the same time, with data-driven and precise operation.”

He said the tractor is just one aspect of a 21st century sustainable farm featuring ground and air autonomous vehicles, clean energy and fast communication.

Some makers of tractors that still require human drivers are now changing up the means of propulsion. Mani Iyer, chief executive of Solectrac, has two electric tractors: a 25-horsepower version on the market and a 70-hp model in testing for orchard, winery and vineyard work. It is expected to be available in 2023.

“Almost 80% of the tractor industry is 100-horsepower and below,” Iyer said. “Our aim is to reach that category.”

While the purchase price can be 25% to 30% more than a comparable diesel model, going electric pays for itself in the long run, Iyer said.

“The charging cost is 1/10th the fuel cost,” Iyer said. “With one moving part against 300-plus moving parts of diesel—no oil, no fuel—maintenance is fairly low,” Iyer said.

Mike Haney, a Yolo County farm manager, has been using a 25-hp Solectrac machine since December. So far, he’s satisfied.

“We have a lot of fruit trees that I just planted,” Haney said. “Running the compost and things like that, it works really nice.”

One thing Haney appreciates most is the $0 fuel bill since “diesel’s so crazy high.” He’s not even spending money to charge it, as the farm has solar power.

One roadblock to widespread autonomous adoption in California is a state regulation mandating that “all self-propelled equipment shall, when under its own power and in motion, have an operator stationed at the vehicular controls.”

Monarch Tractor, which is testing electric driver-optional tractors in the state, petitioned the Occupational Health and Safety Standards Board for an update. It argued current rules, which go back to the 1970s, are obsolete in light of technological advancements. The board denied the petition in June but asked Cal/OSHA to provide updates on testing progress.

Bryan Little, director of employment policy for California Farm Bureau and chief operating officer of the affiliated Farm Employers Labor Service, testified in favor of Monarch’s petition at a hearing.

“It appears those requirements could hamper deploying autonomous agricultural vehicles in any location or situation where you would have workers working nearby,” Little said.

He added, “I can’t see a reason why you can’t deploy autonomous agricultural vehicles anywhere where there are not workers working nearby.” Cal/OSHA would not have jurisdiction in that case, he said.

Little described the hierarchy of regulating exposure to potential hazards in farm fields. Dangers can be addressed through engineering controls or technologies to remove the hazards. Safety can be achieved through administrative controls, such as governing length of exposure for workers or through use of personal protective equipment such as masks, goggles and gloves.

“An autonomous tractor removes the driver from that potentially hazardous situation entirely,” Little said. “It’s the ultimate engineering control—because the person’s never exposed—and it doesn’t even involve PPE because the driver’s never there in the first place.”

Noting that labor representatives opposed Monarch’s petition, Little said he believes labor unions’ objections to driverless tractors boil down to a fear that such technology will put people out of work—”a bit of a flat-Earth view.”

“If we’ve learned anything over the last 250 years of the development of national economies and the economics of firms and households, it’s that development of technology and capital investment allows the more efficient use of capital and labor inputs,” Little said. “It has the effect of increasing incomes, increasing levels of education and improving safety in the workplace. Why you would not want to do those things, I don’t know.”

Ascher said modern tractor technology could be an effective recruiting tool.

“This technology is a big opportunity to create new 21st century jobs, attract younger generations back to the farm for existing robotics and data jobs,” Ascher said. “We work with local communities, high schools and universities to promote this idea.”

Kingman, who’s also a farmer, said his goal is simply to help farmers.

“Farmers are facing a lot of challenges right now—water and labor,” he said. While he can’t help on the water side, he added, “at a minimum, we can at least help with the labor side of things.”

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