New Delhi: A tractor still needs a human driver. So you think. But if you can have driverless cars and trucks, then why not have tractors without farmers? US-based Autonomous Tractor Corp. began developing automation technology for tractors way back in 2011. Two-and-a-half years back, the Harper Adams University in England unveiled an autonomous tractor.
Christened Pomona, the driverless tractor was developed as part of the project, entitled USability of Environmentally sound and Reliable techniques in Precision Agriculture (USER-PA)—a programme which was launched in 2013.
Speaking about the tractor, Sam Wane, senior lecturer in engineering at Harper Adams University, had said, “The robotic tractor was created from modifying an existing tractor to enable it to be controlled purely by a computer. We even removed the seat and steering wheel as they weren’t needed anymore."
Farmers in India, too, may soon taste the benefit of having home-grown driverless tractors. Escorts Ltd, an engineering conglomerate, announced one of the country’s first autonomous tractors on 6 September.
The tractor is still in the concept stage but will have help from partners like Microsoft that will help align these smart devices using the internet of things (IOT) concept and artificial intelligence (AI) tools. BOSCH, on its part, will help in future emission readiness while Reliance Jio will assist in enhancing the farm machinery life cycle.
Last September, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, India’s largest manufacturer of tractors, showcased its first driverless tractor. Mahindra’s tractor can steer automatically using GPS-based technology, lift tools from the ground, recognize the boundaries of a farm, and can be operated remotely using a tablet.
While M&M and Escorts are large companies, India is also home to the world’s first driverless electric tractor. This was developed by AutoNXT Automation, a completely bootstrapped Mumbai-based start-up, run by Kaustubh Dhonde, an electronics engineer.
According to Dhonde, only 18% of farmers in India own more than 5 acres of land. For those who don’t own land area larger than five acres, it makes more sense to rent a tractor, rather than buying one.
Dhonde says his tractor, called The Hulk, is meant to be shared by communities of farmers who own smaller pieces of land. “The average cost of renting a regular diesel tractor is about ₹ 1500 per acre per hour. However, The Hulk brings this cost down to about ₹ 350 per hour," claims Dhonde. The Hulk is a 30hp tractor that can run for 150 km on each charge.
There are also differences in the technology being used in India as opposed to those used in developed nations. M&M’s tractor uses GPS-based technology, whereas US-based Bear Flag Robotics, is trying to develop tractors that don’t depend on GPS.
Dhonde says his tractor doesn’t use traditional self-driving technology like Light Detection and Ranging and depends on cameras and software to navigate around a farm and perform various activities. AI is another technology being tested on such tractors, especially by some firms in Japan.