Is this tractor the beginning of the end for farmers?

How will automation impact on agriculture?

Over the past few years, driverless car technology has steered itself into the mainstream, with Google and Mobileye at the forefront of this emerging autonomous industry.

But whilst it may be several years before we witness the Queen’s highways being overrun by cyber-drivers, the fields and meadows through which they wind may welcome robots sooner. For, earlier this week at the annual Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, capital goods company CNH Industrial gave us a glimpse of our agricultural future.

“We live in a changing world,” began the controversial CNH presentation, “and farming is changing with it. Our growing population and a greater environmental awareness mean that farmers need to produce more food, more sustainably – but from the same amount of land.

“And it’s ultimately technology that will make the difference.”

The CNH Industrial innovations team launched a tractor concept, the striking black and red Case IH, at the show – and it has farm hands and agricultural workers the world over sweating.

A distant relation to the Roomba – self-guided vacuum cleaners that have already been taking homes across the pond by storm – the Case is equipped with lidar laser detection system, multiple cameras and GPS. And, to stop you getting your own hands dirty, it can be controlled from a desktop computer or even a tablet.

These machines can not only be set up in under a minute, with boundary maps and immovable objects being programmed in, but they can also work in tandem with other ‘smart’ tractors, using a vehicle to vehicle communications network to get jobs done in a fraction of the time it would take humans. And, of course, these machines don’t take lunch breaks, toilet breaks, or sleep.

The point has been made that fields of crops don’t have as many obstacles or potential problems for the onboard computers as public roads, and yes, the software is less elaborate than driverless cars – so, unsurprisingly, it looks as if it might be on sale sooner rather than later. But it is more worrying.

While under 1 per cent of the UK population now work in agriculture, there are still many more jobs to be lost from the introduction of driverless tractors than from driverless cars. We each get into our car every morning anyway – usually to drive to our jobs – so if we buy such pioneering vehicles as the Google X prototype, no jobs will be lost. We don’t all employ chauffeurs to drive our cars at the moment, after all. But, with tractors, it’s a different matter.

Agricultural vehicles such as the 419 horsepower Case IH may be the future – they can drive at a top speed of 31 mph and bring down costs for farmers – but how many of those employed in the agricultural sector will lose their jobs as a result?

“We set out to take technology in a different direction,” concluded CNH’s presentation, “allowing farmers to integrate new technology into existing fleets. The autonomous tractor concept provides a tantalising glimpse into the future of farming.”

But will agricultural workers agree?

Further Reading