This week I’ve been working on putting together the annual review of what’s new in tractors, which will appear in a few of Glacier FarmMedia’s (our publisher’s) magazines across the country. As I assembled all the information about what each brand had to offer and double checked what has been making news in the ag equipment world this year, I had to stop and ask myself just exactly what qualifies as a tractor these days?
That question is no longer as simple as it seems.
Why? Well, because the design and form of tractors seems to be about to undergo its most fundamental change since steam traction engines gave way to gasoline-engine machines.
This year one of the Silver Innovations awards handed out ahead of the famous Agritechnica machinery show in Germany was given to AGCO’s Fendt division for its MARS robotic seeders. These little machines are designed to work in “swarms” to seed (or plant) crops in a field. They’re self-contained little machines, a tractor and seed drill all in one.
And they don’t just take over the job of mechanically placing seed from a conventional tractor and drill or planter, they take digital technology to a whole new level, actually GPS recording the exact location of each seed they place. They are capable of planting multiple varieties or types of crops. That would allow producers to easily make use of intercropping advantages.
And AGCO is currently looking to put swarms of these little bots to work on farms all around the world whose needs could best take advantage of what the little machines have to offer.
Of course we’ve seen a new robotic seed drill debut here in Canada as well. SeedMaster’s DOT implement carrier stunned show goers at the Ag in Motion farm show near Saskatoon in July. And now DOT Technologies, the spinoff brand created to develop and market the DOT, is also looking to place a few machines with select producers for next year’s seeding season.
So are the MARS and DOT machines tractors? They do basically the same job, if not replace the tractor in at least some tasks. While I stuck with conventional tractors for this year’s Tractor Guides, I suspect the task of deciding what is and what isn’t a tractor will only get increasingly difficult as time goes on.
CNH Industrial (or CNH Global as it is now officially known), the parent company behind Case IH and New Holland has recently partnered with the Royal College of Art in London England to sponsor a competition for future vehicle design, which includes categories for agricultural machines. A look at the winning technologies makes it clear that what today meets the definition of tractors, trucks and other types of vehicles is almost certainly about to change. The only question is how dramatically and how soon.
And what powers the field machines of tomorrow may not necessarily be diesel fuel. AGCO’s Fendt brand also won a Silver Innovations Award for its electrically powered tractor that plugs in to recharge just like one of today’s electric cars. It apparently offers about four hours of run time. And New Holland’s latest generation Methane-powered tractor is also making the show rounds again this year, offering yet another potentially “green” source of energy.
What actually amazes me most isn’t the cleverness of the technology, it’s that we seem to be so used to the growing discussion of robotics and automation in farming that machines like Fendt’s MARS robots are only deemed worthy of a silver medal. With the ever-growing sophistication of today’s autonomous systems, that makes me wonder what the future’s gold medal innovations will look like?