Shortly after Case IH and New Holland introduced their concept autonomous tractors at the Farm Progress Show in late August 2016, Colorado-based market intelligence firm, Tractica, released a report predicting rapid growth in robotic tractor sales by 2020. The report suggested that eventually revenues from those sales would reach $30.7 billion by 2024.

Tractica’s predictions were contained in its Agricultural Robots report, which studied the applications, market drivers and challenges that will affect widespread development and acceptance of robotic farm machinery, says the firm’s Japan-based lead analyst Manoj Sahi.

With nearly $31 billion predicted in robotic tractor sales over the next 8 years, we followed up with Sahi to explore in more detail how this rapid expansion might occur and what it will mean for farm equipment dealers.

Coalescing Technologies

Sahi says by 2020 some of the key technological issues such as obstacle avoidance and real-time decision making will have stable solutions, which will allow robotic tractors a spot in prime time. Like other autonomous or semi-autonomous (supervised) robotic vehicles, driverless tractors must be programmed to navigate, understand their position, determine speed, and avoid stationary and moving obstacles, while at the same time performing their tasks.

“The cost of sensors used in autonomous vehicles is expected to fall by 2020, and the communication technology used in these vehicles will be more reliable and robust,” he explains. “All of these factors will be coming together by that time to allow implementation of robotic tractors at an affordable price.”

Also, Sahi says regulations governing robotic tractors likely will be framed in a way to accommodate their widespread adoption much earlier than the autonomous on-road vehicles being developed today.

The researcher says the new industry segment should provide opportunities for many small, medium and large technology firms — many in the information technology field — to provide a range of products and services necessary for equipment manufacturers to develop and launch autonomous tractors.

Case IH’s concept autonomous tractor and a stable mate from New Holland made headlines at the Farm Progress Show last summer. The technologies on these machines promise strong sales for the equipment industry, a rising tide that will help buoy farm equipment dealers along the way.

He says a good example might be Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI), a Utah-based technology provider responsible for developing and refining the engineering for the Case IH Magnum and New Holland T8 NHDrive machines introduced last summer. “ASI is the industry leader in off-road autonomous solutions, with nearly 20 years of experience in the field,” Sahi explains.

“These smaller, more agile technology developers are able to partner with large global companies such as CNH Industrial to help them bring multi-vehicle autonomy to market much more quickly and economically than they could otherwise,” he says.

Sahi says IT vendors will provide sensor technology, and value-added service providers will be customizing autonomous tractor operation and use for farm management solutions. System integrators will be solving problems and developing products to best combine automation with new farm equipment.

3-Year Vision

Sahi says he doesn’t see robotics making a drastic change in the power range of future tractors. “In most cases, the existing tractors will become smarter with add-on equipment for the next few years,” he explains. “However, with the development and commercial launch of altogether newly-designed autonomous compact tractors, the energy consumption will be significantly reduced and machine efficiencies will grow. Because of this increase in machine efficiency, I foresee the horsepower range for these tractors to be somewhere between 60-80% of current power ratings.”

Ultimately, Sahi says autonomous tractors will be used largely for all purposes today’s conventional tractors are being used. “Autonomous tractors will be a big investment for farmers, and therefore farmers will be buying equipment to systematically handle multiple field activities ranging from tillage, cultivation, planting, harvesting and data collection,” he explains.

The Dealer Connection

The mushrooming effect of a new industry segment that could add $32 billion dollars to farm equipment sales by 2024 most certainly provides opportunities for equipment dealers — and not just for the sale of new iron. Sahi says dealers will be vital to educating customers about the changes coming.

  • “Dealers have great opportunities to reach out to their customer base and create awareness of the efficiencies coming,” he explains. “They will benefit from bridging the customers and their needs to their partner companies, as well as being able to provide training programs to farmers with value-added services.
         “Moreover, dealers will be in a position to easily work out strategies to phase out conventional and older tractors with quick replacements of new or upgraded equipment while promoting autonomous technology.”
  • Sahi says equipment dealers need to become familiar with autonomous self-driving technology, the components of robotic systems and the safety mechanisms associated with robotic machinery.
         “Highly-trained service personnel will be necessary to handle in-field technological issues, which likely will be common as robotics become popular in crop production,” he explains. “Also, dealers and their representatives will need very good communication skills to help customers understand the systems.”
  • The researcher also notes dealers will need to be prepared to handle any emergency situation or liability issues or farm accidents arising from the use of autonomous tractors.