Farmers not plowing ahead with self-driving tractors

Lydia Mulvany
Bloomberg News
The cockpit of a modern combine looks more like that of a jetliner.

Not all farmers are ready to give up control of their tractors even though fully autonomous technology has arrived.

There’s still work to be done perfecting all functions that have to be automated, meaning fields swarming with self-operating machines are a few years down the road, according to equipment maker AGCO Corp. Chief Operating Officer Eric Hansotia.

“To take the driver out of the vehicle, you have to automate all the functions the farmer does,” Hansotia said in an interview. “So anything a farmer watches or checks, changes or adjusts, it’s what we’re working on.”

Equipment makers are laying the groundwork for such technology to go mainstream. Hansotia said AGCO has been working with a coalition of companies to create an open, “interstate highway system” for farmers to easily control and share data coming off their machines wirelessly.

Another frontier is using artificial intelligence on sprayers to stop chemicals from drifting off fields — an issue that farmers are increasingly confronting as weedkiller dicamba becomes increasingly popular. The herbicide has a propensity to vaporize and drift onto neighboring fields, harming plants that aren’t modified to withstand it. More than a million acres of soybeans were damaged last year, and the chemical was a focus of some lawsuits.

Last year, AGCO released a combine that has sensors to visualize crop flow, automatically adjusting settings to optimize harvest, and plans to launch a smart planter in South America this year. The company also owns Precision Planting LLC, which builds agriculture technology that can be added to machinery.