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Scientific Advances on Tractor Technology Boost Farming Practices

Farming is becoming more scientific, with remote sensing, GPS, and data analytics all being added to farming equipment. Thousands of US farmers all over are adopting the new equipment to make their farming more precise.

Car makers are still looking at 2020 for the first fully automatic car, but farming is basically there. Tractors can map fields, drive themselves, and check its own motion within inches so it doesn’t waste fertilizer, seed or fuel.

“The iron’s almost starting to become a commodity – where the tractor is a tractor to a customer and the technology is the differentiating piece,” Agco’s Ben Craker said.

Companies selling tractors and seed are anticipating a huge opportunity with larger crops which will feed the swelling population – estimated to read 9 billion in 2050.

Aiding farmers in dealing with inclement weather presents another opportunity for agriculture companies.

Mark Rosegrant from the International Food Policy Research said that farmers’ desire to start precision agriculture may help farms increase their yields by 10 percent, which is a huge boost from the average global increase of 1 percent.

Both this high demand for food and an increase of farmers who want more out of their equipment has led companies to make huge leaps technologically. Now farming technology includes remote sensing with data collection on variables like nutrient levels and soil moisture.

Agco predicts that the first fully self-run tractors will come out in 5-10 years. Recently, companies have come out with systems that let the farmer driving a John Deere move in sync with a grain cart while harvesting. Then, if the tractor breaks down, there’s another system that sends alerts to farmers, dealers and Deere when it doesn’t work.

Agco sells a Fendt imprint that lets one driver “drive” two tractors simultaneously. Many systems on the market can have one tractor pick up where another left off, so that no seed is wasted.

Nonetheless, someone needs to be in the machine even though it is controlled remotely. This isn’t because of lack of technology, but more a safeguard against liability, according to Adam Fleck of Morningstar. A robot tractor that malfunctions could cause a lot of damage if it shorted out along a highway.
“The logical next step would be removing the human from the machine,” he said. “We have the capability to do it already.”

Cell phone technology and software will have to keep up, according to Agco’s Aguimar De Souza.

“In the future you may be able to use your cell phone [to control a tractor], but we may need to have something like 7G technology [instead of 4G] to make sure the signal is reliable,” he said.

Tractors are only the beginning. According to the drone industry, they expect 80 percent of their sales will be farmers. U.S. tractor companies don’t claim to be investing in making drones, though,  as they are not legal to sell commercially. It’s more likely that tractor companies will partner up with drone companies down the line.

Ag companies are spending their time utilizing data that farmers have been collecting for years, such as tracking yield and soil.
“There’s a ton of information coming off of the field,” Deere’s Cory Reed said. “What’s not easy today is to take that data and analyse it and take the next steps to say what am I going to change next year.”

Agriculture Industry companies hope to use “big data,” to help make better  high-end tractors. After high-tech tractors become the standard in developed countries, these companies will look to marketing to the demand for higher yields in developing countries.

At first, this advanced technology meant real-time stats such as, how many bushels were being harvested. Now, the advances have cloud-based data servers so farmers can see their data wirelessly and also receive farming advice.

This year Monsanto said it would acquire Climate Corporation (to the tune of $930 million). Chief Executive Hugh Grant said of the acquisition that he saw data promising a possible $20 billion in revenue for the agriculture industry.

“[Farmers] tell us they are looking to use more of the data coming from their fields and their tractor cabs to improve their productivity and profitability,” he said.

Another great system to look out for is Climate Corp’s weather forecasting, giving information locally and providing tools to manage weather risks. This goes nicely with Monsanto’s FieldScripts that give advice on what seed to buy along with other data-driven tips.

DuPont Pioneer’s Lane Arthur said they have doubled their data generation every six months in the last three years.

Of course, many farmers are hesitant to share their data. Usually farmers can opt out of data sharing, but industry companies hope to come up with ways that can utilize such data to be able to make better products, without infringing on any farmer’s privacy. Some farmers are concerned that it is just the industry’s way of getting even more money from the farmer and selling more unnecessary equipment and seed that just gets more and more expensive.

A rural farmer of 3,000 acres, Mark Jehle, is a great example of a farmer who is concerned about privacy. He has all the latest gear, and is careful to always track his data. He says this new technology is “the answer.” He goes on to say that, “anybody who doesn’t have it, I feel sorry for.”

Yet he is skeptical of Monsanto’s product, FieldScripts.

“They know way too much already,” he said, as he sits in a tractor steering itself. “I don’t want to give them any more than they already have.”

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