Specialty Crops: The ‘Uber’ of Driver-less Tractors?

Specialty Crops: The ‘Uber’ of Driver-less Tractors?

This driver-less tractor from Kingman Ag Enterprises of California features a 55-gallon tank/barrel so it can go a long way before refueling. (Photo: Connor Kingman)

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Another driver-less tractor debuted a few weeks ago in California, bringing with it a whole new set of opportunities for large-acreage growers of fruits and vegetables — in more ways than one.

Kingman Ag Services, a partnership between Connor Kingman and Ted Sheely, who farms about 8,000 acres of wine grapes, pistachios, watermelons, cotton, and other crops in the state’s San Joaquin Valley, rolled out an autonomous tractor that will initially be targeted at wine grape growers.

Kingman, the company’s CEO, is a 2017 mechanical engineering graduate of the University of California, Irvine. He says he was able to cut costs by foregoing the use of GPS, instead employing cameras complemented with LIDAR to steer the tractor.  Eventually the LIDAR will be discontinued from the system, allowing just the cameras to steer the tractor.

But it wasn’t the unit’s technology that stopped me — it was the way it will be delivered. The tractors will be provided as a service, with operators employed by Kingman controlling them remotely — perhaps even from a great distance. Kingman’s ambitious plans call for disrupting the traditional model in which farmers buy or lease tractors.

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“We’re going to make it cheaper for you to use one of our tractors than to just lease one yourself, or even using your own tractor,” he says. “It would be like if Uber charged you 5 cents per mile. There’s a certain point where it’s cheaper to lease than to buy.”

Kingman says Uber executives believe if they can get costs down to as low as 12 cents per mile, people won’t really have much of an incentive to buy cars.

“We’re doing the exact same thing, but for tractors,” he says. “Within 20 years, no one will be buying a tractor anymore.”

What do you think of Kingman’s prediction?

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