Emerging technology is changing the future of farming

Since the first time a farmer hitched a plough to a horse the need to find new ways of increasing productivity in agriculture has driven ever more impressive advancements in vehicle technology.

Farms of all shapes and sizes rely on vehicles to operate – from the giant combine harvesters prowling hectares of arable land in the east of the country to the go-anywhere ATVs which perform 101 tasks on smaller farms in every corner of the land.

Modern tractors are light years ahead of their less reliable ancestors with sophisticated electronic brains directing mechanical brawn. And while this might make repairs and servicing more complicated and costly, there are few farmers who would trade their vehicles for an older model.

In truth, technological advances can produce problems of their own. Improved labour-saving devices inevitably mean a reduction in the number of jobs in agriculture, a growing requirement for high tech machinery can be costly in terms of initial outlay and running costs, and environmental impact is a concern.

And where vehicles and workers are in close proximity there is always a safety risk. Of the 160 fatalities in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry between 2010 and 2015, 30 involved workers being struck by moving vehicles and 16 involved contact with machinery (source: Health and Safety Executive's 'Health and safety in agriculture, forestry and fishing in Great Britain, 2014/15' report).

Although innovation will always have productivity at its heart, the future for agricultural vehicles must also account for the protection of people and the wider environment.

What next for farm vehicles?

New research by the NFU offers an interesting glimpse into the near future which shows how technology is being fine-tuned to make farm vehicles increasingly economical and environmentally friendly.

Driverless, electric-powered tractors could become a reality within a few years and the norm within the next two decades, the report claims. It states: “Imagine a farm where electric agricultural vehicles, some autonomous, some conventional, are connected to charging points in large solar PV equipped ‘carport-style’ machinery sheds, earning additional income from so-called ‘vehicle-to-grid’ network balancing services while they are on-charge.”

Elsewhere, agricultural vehicle manufacturers are developing or improving cleaner fuel options such as biodiesel, vegetable oil, biogas, and hydrogen cells.

The NFU report also describes a future where groups of autonomous tractors operate under the guidance of individual operators, working day and night, and where lightweight vehicles which can operate in all weathers without causing soil compaction, all under the gaze of swarms of drones monitoring conditions and spraying crops.

We’ll keep you moving

Whatever the future holds for farm vehicles it is certain they will remain a vital part of any farming operation. Like other tools we can sometimes take them for granted but when they break down or are stolen it quickly becomes clear how much we rely on them.

Find out how NFU Mutual is helping farmers to keep their vehicles moving through its specialist agricultural vehicle insurance.