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Green tractor with grain mixer attached
Agricultural Vehicle Insurance

Are autonomous tractors the future?

Author NFU Mutual |

Autonomous tractors working the nations fields is fast becoming a technical possibility

Although basic self-driving tractors have been trialled for decades, advances in global positioning systems (GPS) and sophisticated technology, have only recently made them a practical proposition.

Despite the very real possibility of teams of unmanned agricultural vehicles ploughing and spraying Britain’s fields, NFU Mutual’s latest Agri-Tech report has highlighted that 80% of farmers haven’t even considered utilising this modern technology. In order to assess whether autonomous tractors will be a future farming practice, it’s worth weighing up how beneficial they are against any barriers that are currently delaying their progress.

What tasks could an autonomous tractor perform?

Harper Adams University’s ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project has shown that it is now possible for autonomous machines to carry out a full range of arable field operations. These include:

  • Fertiliser spreading and crop spraying
  • Seed distribution and planting
  • Irrigation 
  • Crop harvesting
  • Collecting information on crop and soil conditions.

What are the benefits of an autonomous tractor?

Using unmanned vehicles will obviously reduce labour efforts and remove the possibility of human error, whilst giving farmers more time to focus on other tasks. In addition to this, autonomous vehicles can continue to work when it’s too dark to see, with many having sensors in place to ensure accuracy remains high, effectively providing more working hours on the farm throughout the year. Further benefits may include:

  • More efficient fertilizer distribution
  • Less fuel wastage
  • Reduced production costs
  • Reduced soil compaction.

What challenges do autonomous agri-vehicles face?

In addition to simply changing the mindset of traditional farmers, the main challenge facing the takeover of autonomous tractors is the cost. Many are sceptical as to whether these systems can be affordable and simple to integrate into farms’ existing management structures. Although increased efficiency will provide potential financial savings and reduce waste, start-up costs for the technologies themselves do present a relatively sizeable investment.

Could autonomous tractors provide a competitive edge?

NFU Mutual Rural Affairs Specialist Tim Price outlines in their Agri-Tech report that he has ‘met farmers who put their success down to always buying the latest tech on the market…and met farmers who pride themselves on investing as little as possible and get by pretty well with ‘dog and stick’ farming. This contrast is at the forefront of the autonomous tractor debate. With just 4% of farmers having already invested, and a further 3% planning to invest, correct application of unmanned agri-vehicles could present the opportunity to be ahead of the curve in modern farming. 

There are also options available to farmers wishing to avoid the fully autonomous route, such as tandem driving systems, whereby an autonomous rear tractor follows the operator driven lead. In addition to these, many of the leading farm vehicle companies are developing tractors that provide alternative fuel sources such as electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, suggesting that further progress is already on the horizon.

For further insight, expert views and real-life case studies, please download the report