Meet the robot tractor that's coming to a farm near you - Brian Henderson

It might be a sad fact, but one of the earliest memories which I can recollect involves the demonstration of a robotic tractor at the Highland Show.

The AgBot is capable of a multitude of field tasks
The AgBot is capable of a multitude of field tasks

If memory serves a wee red Fergie trundled round the main ring, stopping to turn in and face the crowd every so often and flash its lights in a friendly salute to the enthralled crowd standing several people deep around the ringside – with no driver steering it!

While it might have been a simple remote radio control system which produced what was at the time such an amazing spectacle, a driverless tractor certainly impressed the audience.

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“Aye, that’ll be what will be on the go when you’re a farmer” I was told by the elderly relative who was taking me on the annual treat to see all the show had to offer – and to collect as many leaflets as I could possibly carry from stands stacked high with the shiniest new machinery.

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Picture books with “The Farm of the Future” added to this belief, with Bleep and Booster-esque machinery trundling unaided round the farm while a serious faced farmer watched over his flock of robotractors from the comfort of his central control tower.

Fast forward more decades than I’d care to admit and it is finally beginning to look like this vision of hands-free farming might actually be inching its way toward reality. For, with the show returning to its normal format after a gap of three years, one of the most notable changes is going to be the sudden spurt in the number of robot tractors, aerial drones and other pieces of autonomous machinery capable of carrying out a day’s work without the need for the farmer’s hand – or indeed a farm hand.

For it would seem that while we were all stuck on the farm, mastering the secrets of Zoom, a similar step forward in the application of technology has been under way by tractor makers around the globe.

But while virtually all of the big players have previewed their own version of an autonomous tractor, these have only really been seen in that virtual world – usually in the form of video-clips or pictures in the farming magazines of working prototypes.

The enormous development in satellite navigation in recent years has seen the use of auto-steer guidance become a commonplace fitment on most new tractors (should the appropriate micro-chips be available!) and while they must still be under the control of a driver, I guess this technology has marked an important stepping stone towards fully autonomous tractors.

But while the examples of the unmanned tractors coming from the major manufacturers have all been billed as the “soon-to-be-released” answer to the growing labour problems affecting the sector, so far none of them have been available to buy.

Even the recent excitement surrounding the widely hyped John Deere model was rather unceremoniously doused when the company revealed that due to ‘legislative issues’ – effectively who was liable should an accident be caused by one of these machines – there were no plans to market this robot tractor in Europe or the UK.

However it would appear that a real, actual example of this new breed of robot tractors is to appear at the show this year – and it’s one which has made it beyond the bounds of a mere demonstration vehicle, with the order books already open for purchases in the UK.

The AgBot 5.115T2, a 156hp dual tracked autonomous tractor, is, apparently, capable of a multitude of field tasks using standard PTO powered and draft implements – and is available to buy from Angus-based precision farming specialists SoilEssentials.

The machine which was launched on to the UK market a couple of weeks ago at the Cereals event down south will take pride of place on the SoilEssentials stand at the show – with in-field demonstration days scheduled for the following week in East Lothian and Angus.

And while I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ask the manufacturers what would happen if one of these vehicles accidentally drove over a rambler’s foot, I’m reliably informed that they meet all the required legislation allowing them to be used in the field.

One of the directors of the company selling the AgBot said the step change which it offered in working practice was similar to that between a horse and a grey Fergie.

I just wonder if it will match up to the expectations raised by that wee red Fergie at the show so many years ago…



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