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Farmers are preparing for driverless tractors, and companies are already investing in the technology

A growing number of investors and venture capital groups are putting their money into what the John Deere Company is calling the next giant leap in agricultural technology-- fully autonomous tractors and tillage equipment. Bloomington-based GROWMARK, one of the largest farmer-owned agricultural supply cooperatives in North America, is among those investors.

In 2022, GROWMARK announced it would join with a Minneapolis agricultural supply co-op, CHS, to form a venture capital fund called Cooperative Ventures. The companies recently announced they had decided to make Cooperative Ventures’ first investment with hardware-software company Sabanto, an ag-tech startup that is on the forefront of developing software that allows tractors to be operated in a fully autonomous manner.

Speculators such as Cooperative Ventures feel the time is now to invest their resources into companies developing driverless machinery software due to the severity of the U.S. labor shortage’s effect on farms, ranches and the food supply.

Heather Thompson
Heather Thompson

“We're investing in early-stage startups in ag tech, with the aim to accelerate those companies and the products they are making for the benefit of farmers,” said Heather Thompson, GROWMARK director of innovation. “We see labor and access to a reliable workforce as one of the primary challenges not only in ag retail, which is our business,but also in production agriculture, which is our customers’ business. Autonomous machinery is one tool in the toolbox we need to address the labor challenge today.”

Autonomous machinery, software emerging

Focusing on 60 to 200 horsepower tractors, Sabanto, headquartered in Ames, Iowa, has developed software to retrofit planters, tillers, sprayers and mowers since 2018. The company is far from alone on the autonomous technology frontier; a Seattle company, Carbon Robotics, announced last year they would bring to market a fully autonomous, pull-behind “LaserWeeder” robot that utilizes 30 industrial CO2 lasers to cut weeds at a rate of two acres per hour.

Also last year, John Deere debuted the world’s first fully autonomous tractor that can perform time-consuming tillage work all by itself. It works like this: advanced cameras provide 360-degree vision to identify objects in a crop field and triangulate the distance. As images stream from the cameras, a high-speed processor evaluates the images, using artificial intelligence to determine if the area is safe to drive over or not.

If the processor doesn't recognize an object, it automatically stops and sends an alert. The process takes all of about 100 milliseconds, according to the Moline-based Deere company.

“The farmer only needs to transfer the tractor to the field and configure it for autonomous operation,” said Deere director of emerging technology, Julian Sanchez, at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “Pull out their phone, swipe from left to right, and the machine starts.”

Are farmers ready to embrace driverless machinery?

Speaking at the 2022 CES, Deere’s Sanchez stressed that to embrace the company’s autonomous technology, farmers must be willing to place a huge amount of trust in Deere’s reputation. Which begs the question: are farmers ready to put their trust in the driverless revolution?

“There’s one thing I’ve learned from our members time and time again when we have this conversation,” said Todd Main, director of market development for the Illinois Soybean Association in Bloomington. “Farmers like to ride around in tractors. That’s one of their things. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.”

Ron Bormaster, show manager for the Greater Peoria Farm Show, said that farmers’ reactions to autonomous equipment on display at the five national farm shows he runs each year range from highly interested to decidedly uninterested. “It’s each individual for themselves. It’s something that many of them want to try, but you never know about how they (autonomous farm implements) are going to be received in the long run,” he said.

Eric Benning of Benning Distributing, Inc. in Raymond, Illinois said his business will plunge into the autonomous machinery market in early 2023 when they take delivery of their first autonomous electric mowers. The mowers operate using RTK technology, which is utilized in precision agriculture to solve grading, level and slope challenges.

“The autonomous market is growing,” Benning said. “These mowers are based on the same principle of the autonomous vacuum cleaners people have in their houses. Who doesn’t want to save time and labor? Once you become comfortable with autonomous machinery-- and you have a retailer who stands behind you-- it becomes routine.”

GROWMARK investment focuses on row crops

Though autonomous machinery and software is utilized across a broad range of home, agricultural and forestry applications, Cooperative Ventures’ vision is aligned with the future of autonomy in row crop farming. The ag industry is in dire need of workers to drive trucks, sprayers, tractors and other machinery needed to keep the food chain moving, according to Thompson.

“This is a real challenge for both farmers and ag retail, that ability to source and retain field labor to operate these machines,” she said.

Hence GROWMARK and Cooperative Ventures’ investment in Sabanto, which specializes in autonomous machinery designed to plant, maintain, harvest and transport Midwest corn and soybeans.

“We know that autonomy is coming. The major manufacturers have signaled that it is definitely in their pipeline, and it’s certainly needed in this industry,” said Thompson. “The specialty crop industry has struggled with labor issues for some time now, and they were early pioneers in the autonomy space. What we like about Sabanto is that their focus has always been on the row crop sector where the majority of our customers are.”

Sabanto’s software that will allow standard-drive tractors to be autonomously controlled is expected to arrive on the ag retail market within a year. “You won’t be driving in central Illinois and look over to see a tractor working in a field without a driver anytime real soon. But it’s coming,” Thompson said.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.