Old Macdonald had a robot: Driverless tractors appear on farms

For generations, enormous tractors with ruddy-cheeked farmers at the wheel have been a familiar symbol of countryside and farming life.

Soon, however, the sight of tractor and farmer hard at work together, preparing the land and harvesting the crops, may be as out of date as the horse-drawn plough from the age of Robert Burns.

For the age-old relationship of man, machine and land is set to be broken with the arrival in Scotland of the first fleet of robot tractors.

Driverless ‘Agbot’ tractors, due to arrive in Scotland within weeks, have been described as a gamechanger for agriculture, with the ability to work solo, 24-hours a day and to precise standards – raising the potential that they can help solve a crippling labour shortage crisis which has left farmers and growers scrabbling for staff.

Because they are significantly lighter than a traditional tractor – and, as hybrid vehicles, use less diesel – they are also being touted as a greener option, offering a solution to soil compaction caused by huge vehicles which trample the land and which can lead to flooding, degradation and lower yields.

While, by freeing up time that would normally be spent in the driver’s seat, the vehicles – programmable several months in advance – allow farm staff to concentrate on other areas of increasingly diversified businesses, such as running farm shops, tourist accommodation and food production.

The robot tractors are being offered to Scottish farmers and growers by Brechin-based precision farming specialists SoilEssentials, which first unveiled them at last year’s Royal Highland Show.

The first AgBots destined for farmers’ fields are now “two or three” weeks away from arriving in the UK with orders for the vehicles being taken for delivery in time for this year’s harvest.

It raises the prospect of the autonomous tractors being used on Scottish farms to harvest this year’s crops – without a farmer and his dog in sight.

Although developed over the course of the past four years on the distinctly flat landscape of the Netherlands by farming technology company AgXeed, the diesel and electric hybrid vehicles are said to have been thoroughly tested to handle the rugged Scottish landscape during tests on the steep grassy slopes of an Angus hill farm.

The vehicles, which measure roughly 12ft long and 5ft high but will be much larger once they are fitted with additional equipment to carry out specific jobs such as drilling and cultivating, are said to have “sailed through” their task with ease.

Graham Ralston, hardware director at SoilEssentials, said the driverless vehicles could solve a range of issues affecting modern agriculture, from labour shortage to addressing sustainability and environmental problems, and freeing up farmers’ time.

At a webinar this week to present the new tractors to farmers and growers, he said: “So many farmers in our region have chosen to diversify their businesses to remain viable, this can often mean time sitting in a tractor.

“Although that can be quite enjoyable, it can be a frustrating consumption of time, and it’s not the most efficient place to run a business, especially when the requirements of that business can fall outside the normal workings of the farm and aren’t necessarily complementary with the standard farming calendar.”

The land the robots are to work on is initially mapped out using drones, and the vehicles programmed via a portal which allows farmers to plan how they want them to operate for months in advance.

Additional equipment can be fitted to the tractor which then can be set to work, travelling backwards and forwards, unmanned, for several hours at a time.

Rather than spend time in the tractor cab, farmers are more likely to be in front of computer screens or checking iPads.

Mr Ralston added: “We can see it working in different scenarios, carrying out repetitive jobs like grass mowing and working with small producers as part of a team, for example, as a drilling machine with someone rolling behind with seed.

“We ran tests last summer using it to pull up some potato beds which takes skill to be right place before you start, to line up and a bit of moving around.

“We planned it on the portal and let it go: we knew exactly how long that job would take it, there was no stopping to align the machine, no stopping for a chat.”

A key advantage of the robots is their lightweight: they weigh around 2.8 tons, while modern combine harvesters, tractors and other farm machinery can weigh up to 35 tons. Heavy machines squash soil and force out air, making it difficult for plants to put down roots and draw up nutrients, and leaving land prone to flooding.

Research by scientists in Sweden last year suggested supersize tractors could be responsible for damaging up to a fifth of global land used to grow crops.

Driverless tractors represent the next stage in an increasingly futuristic farming landscape which has seen the use of everything from drones to map fields, data analytics and AI to plot crop rotation, fertiliser and water, soil conditions, weather patterns and apps to keep track of cattle herds.

It has also seen a range of unmanned equipment such as automated milking machines in dairy sheds, semi-autonomous weeding machines that can identify and pluck out weeds, sorting and fruit picking machines and ‘smart’ watering systems that can identify which areas of land require water.

George Baikie, Head of Farms at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), said: “Robots will certainly have an increasingly bigger role to play on farms in the future, especially when it comes to more mundane tasks.

“Robotics for milking cows, for example, is well established but robotic feeding, muck scraping and so on can all be easily automated using technologies similar to autonomous lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners.

“Autonomous vehicle technologies will eventually be available for cars and lorries, so it’s also likely to be made available for tractors on more perfunctory tasks.

“This will especially be the case in arable farming, where robotic vehicles will be able to cultivate, weed, inspect and even harvest crops in conditions where there is less need for complex decision-making during the process.”

He added: “Cutting standing wheat in good conditions is an easy task but the same task in a wet season, with lodged crops and weed admixtures, can test even the best operators.

“Automation will have its place and, as technologies advance, this window of opportunity will expand to ever more diverse and complicated situations. The real challenge will be teaching machines how to make real-time agricultural decisions.

“It’s a hugely exciting time to be in the industry and being able to work with this kind of technology is a big part of that.”

Andrew Christie, Agronomist and Agri-Technologist at The James Hutton Institute said: “While robots seem like something out of a futuristic Sci-Fi movie, technology is always evolving and making life easier. However, like all new tools and technology, their popularity will entirely depend on how successful they are in practice.

“A good example is GPS auto guidance, which has had huge uptake since the early 2000s. This technology has helped to reduce fatigue when working long hours, reducing the chance of operator error by allowing the driver to focus on implement controls and machine performance.

“This results in far more efficient field work operations with greater accuracy in-field. Robot units are a next step in automating the tractor as an evolution of this technology – taking the operator out of the seat and allowing them to control the vehicle remotely.”

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