The belle of the ball at this year’s Farm Progress Show was a tractor. Not just any tractor—this was the “Autonomous Concept Vehicle” from Case IH.

This sleek, cabless, red and black, Gotham-looking beast of a tractor looked like it belonged on the Hollywood set of Batman instead of someone’s farm field. 

This “robotic” tractor took center stage on social media and in the press—including mainstream media, such as Bloomberg and Popular Mechanics. The Bloomberg headline read, “Tractor for the Modern Farm Features Everything But the Farmer.” 

More than a catchy headline. This moment in time will have profound repercussions in the industry and also on the day-to-day role of today’s modern farmer. But, it definitely doesn’t forebode the replacement of the farmer any more so than other game-changing technology, and at the end of the day. The farm will still have a farmer.

The reason the mainstream press took off with the story is the word “autonomous” is also within the everyday person’s vocabulary. Whether it is cars or drones, vehicles that drive and fly by themselves are on the fast track to reality. Everyone has heard of Google’s self-driving car and Amazon’s concept delivery drone. Now add the Case IH tractor to that list. More specifically, take a look at the app-based personal ride service company called Uber and you’ll get a quick glimpse of where this is all going. Last month it released a fleet of 100 self-driving vehicles in the city of Pittsburgh, Pa.

What separates this tractor from its autonomous predecessors is it actually looks like a “real” tractor. That did not go unnoticed by “real” farmers. Something just clicked, and suddenly this life-sized 419 hp remote-controlled tractor is something that they could envision in their own fields planting corn next spring. Well maybe not that fast, as it has to pass the legal red tape, but there will be farmers in line to buy them when they go on sale.

Solves the problem. Farmers will buy them because they will help solve one of the biggest obstacles in crop production: the lack of time and the narrow windows of opportunity. Autonomous tractors, combined with high-speed planter technology, could do wonders compared to today. We’re not talking measly gains of 5% or 20%. Instead, 100% or even 300% gains may actually be possible, as these beasts never sleep. Plus, these autonomous machines may not need to be so big—maybe just more of them, which builds redundancy into the equation.

However, like Uber, the first real leveraging of autonomous technology in agriculture will likely be exploited commercially. Ag retailers that fertilize and spray millions of acres will obviously find tremendous value in tender trucks that deliver themselves to the field and sprayers and spreaders that can literally be on the clock 24/7 during crunch time.

This tractor may take the farmer out of one driver’s seat and finally put him or her where he or she needs to be in order to steer the farm of the future.

With all the data, all the decisions and everything that is on a farmer’s plate these days, this may be what finally puts precision agriculture on the path it needed to be on all along. 

Steve Cubbage is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo. His company, Record Harvest, provides precision ag data-management consulting to ag retailers and farmers.

This article appeared in the October issue of Ag Pro magazine

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