Tractors that can operate without a driver already exist. The question is, when will the technology appear in commercial farm fields in the U.S. and not just in demonstrations? The truth might surprise you — there are already tractors and robots operating in parts of the country without drivers today. In most cases, it’s provided as a service or on a custom basis.
Bear Flag Robotics based near San Francisco, working as a service company, outfits John Deere tractors for autonomous operation doing tillage work on commercial farms in California today. We talked with Igino Cafiero, founder and CEO, about what’s happening and what might be coming soon.
Your company had an earlier relationship with John Deere. Can you elaborate? Yes. Bear Flag Robotics was in the inaugural class of John Deere’s collaborator program in 2019. Through the program, Deere works with several start-up companies at one time, sharing information and providing support without a formal agreement. It was a great opportunity for us to learn from a global company.
What does your company offer today? We have developed a service model to provide autonomous tractors for tillage for large growers, primarily in California. We equip John Deere 8R tractors with equipment and sensors so they can operate autonomously without a driver. Once they’re equipped, the tractors are painted white.
Where is the operator who is overseeing the tractor? In theory, he could be anywhere. Some of the larger farm clients prefer to be involved with us in overseeing the tractors, and so the tractors on those farms may be controlled from the farm office nearer to where tractors are operating.
Why are they doing only tillage work, and why in California and nearby western states? We chose to begin with tillage, and it is up and operational. During one week in February 2021 alone, our tractors covered 5,000 acres. However, the long-term plan is to move to autonomous spraying, planting and harvesting.
There are tillage operations going on 10 months out of the year because of the wide variety of crops grown and climate in California. That’s why we started there. However, our plan is to extend our service model into the Midwest in time. We’ve already had discussions with larger farmers in the Midwest.
What does a farmer gain by contracting for work by an autonomous tractor? Nobody would pay just for “gee whiz” technology. We can deliver value because we can complete tasks cheaper than a farmer can do it themselves if they count all their ownership costs. Delivering value is the guiding north star for our business model.
What if something goes wrong while the autonomous tractor is operating? We have layers of redundancy built into our autonomous systems. Say, for example, that a shank loses a field cultivator shovel. Sensors will detect that something is different and stop the tractor until repairs can be made.
Are there insurance companies that will provide liability coverage for these activities today? Yes, there are specialized companies that offer coverage. Plus, our goal in everything we do is safety. And since we are distancing people from where dangerous work is occurring, we’re providing a safer working environment.