Driverless robot tractors take Japan a step closer to ‘unmanned farming’
A NEW robotic tractor has been unveiled at a research farm run by Japan’s National Agriculture and Food Research Organization.
With no-one in the driver’s seat, a worker standing off to the side used a tablet computer to make the tractor stop and go.
When the tractor reached the edge of the field, it made a rapid U-turn. In no time at all the field was ploughed.
The tractor’s motions can be monitored on a screen, which allowed the worker to operate two tractors simultaneously.
Kubota Corp has started test-marketing of a tractor that can plough both wet and dry fields. It uses satellite location data to move automatically at a high level of precision, with only a few centimetres of error.
“In the future, we will achieve ‘unmanned farming’ in which AI will comprehensively analyse satellite, meteorological and other data so robot farm machines can operate automatically,” said Yuji Tomiyama, a Kubota executive.
Firms in Japan are already marketing selfdriving tractors.
Another area of progress is in the use of small drones.
Agricultural drones are used not only to spray chemicals and monitor crops, but also to detect outbreaks of harmful pests using specialised image analysis software.
In rice farming, “internet of things” technology is being used to control the f low of water into and out of paddies.
“Farmers can use a smartphone to automatically open and close a paddy’s input and output valves to regulate water levels.
The Japanese government’s experiments include efforts to make farming more profitable, such as by aiming to increase the value of produce by at least 10pc while also decreasing production costs by at least 20pc.
“Smart technology has the potential to dramatically change farming,” said Agriculture Minister Takamori Yoshikawa.
However, farmers are feeling a mix of hope and anxiety.
“Farm work gets harder every year and automation could probably relieve a lot of that burden,” said a 68-year-old who grows mainly rice on about four hectares.
“But things like selfdriving tractors are too expensive. It doesn’t pay for small farmers to buy them.”