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John Deere's autonomous tractor lets farmers put their feet up

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The interior of John Deere's autonomous tractor
The interior of John Deere's autonomous tractor

Early mornings, cold weather and isolation tilling the fields before planting their crops could be a thing of the past for farmers after John Deere unveiled an autonomous tractor that can be operated from a smartphone.

The US farm equipment maker said it planned to sell the self-driving system later this year after announcing it at the CES technology show in Las Vegas.

It features three pairs of cameras at the front and another three at the rear that survey the tractor’s surroundings.

They are processed by the onboard artificial intelligence system every 100 milliseconds, allowing the vehicle it to remain on course within less than an inch of its directions, or avoid collisions.

John Deere said the system is capable of tilling fields and planting seeds in a straight line and turning at the end, allowing it to cover a field without human assistance. The company is hoping to let its software carry out other tasks in future such as spraying crops autonomously.

Farmers must put their tractor into position and enter coordinates and directions from a smartphone app. They will be able to monitor the tractor’s movements from their phone with a live video feed and data on its performance, such as fuel in the tractor and how much of a field it has tilled.

The John Deere autonomous tractor in action
The John Deere autonomous tractor in action

The tractor still contains a steering wheel and seat allowing farmers to drive it.

It is hoped that autonomous tractors could allow farmers to take advantage of the often-slim window in the spring months during which weather conditions are suitable for tilling fields before crops are planted.

Farmers have also often struggled to find staff during the pandemic, and fewer people are entering the industry as young workers move from the countryside to cities. The robotic tractor, meanwhile, would be able to work through the night with only a small amount of human monitoring.

Deanna Kovar of John Deere said: “Autonomy isn’t a convenience on the farm, it's a necessity to get the jobs done today and into the future. Autonomously, the tractor can handle the work that farmers don’t have the time or the labour to do.”

John Deere, America’s biggest seller of farming equipment, did not announce a price for the autonomous system, which can be added to existing tractors.

It said it was considering whether to lease or sell the system, which will be sold as an add-on to its 8-series tractors, or charge a subscription fee.

The company said the technology was ready for widespread production but was planning a slow launch this year of up to 20 tractors this year, before expanding it more widely.

Driverless vehicle technology is seen as likely to be in use on farms before public roads since a lack of traffic and junctions makes it less likely to put lives at risk or cause accidents.

Although tractors with a degree of autonomy already exist, they must follow specified paths using GPS or follow other vehicles in order to operate, and are largely used in small, specialised farms rather than being sold to most farmers, and often do not allow the farmer to leave the vehicle.

The company said automation was vital to helping agriculture meet soaring global food demand, which is expected to increase by 50pc in the next 30 years due to a growing and more wealthy population.

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