Autonomous Tractor

AI Goes to Work

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Monarch Tractor says its units cut operating costs by $45 per operating day compared to similarly sized diesel tractors. (Provided by Monarch Tractor)

Smart-tractor manufacturer Monarch Tractor has moved a pair of its fully electric, driver-optional tractors to Wente Vineyards, the nation's oldest, continuously operated family winery. The Monarch tractors represent the California-based manufacturer's first commercial deployment of its innovative tractor, now in development for more than two years.

"We've always been interested in new technologies, especially those that contribute to our sustainability," Niki Wente, a fifth-generation grower, tells DTN/Progressive Farmer. She is the vineyard and viticulture manager for the family operation, founded in 1883. The business includes 2,600 acres of vineyards in California's Livermore Valley and Monterey appellations.

While California law regulates the use of autonomous tractors beyond research, Wente is convinced full, driverless farming operations are coming as more machines like the Monarchs are developed.

"Autonomy is 100% something I believe will be a game changer," Wente says. She sees immediate use for autonomous Monarchs in production agriculture. With its camera systems and artificial intelligence capabilities, "this tractor could become my next field scout. [The Monarch] can tell you what's going on within a vineyard block, what insects are feeding there or [identify] what virus that might be, alert me when something doesn't look right and pinpoint it on a GPS map."

MORE THAN SUSTAINABLE

Praveen Penmetsa, chief executive officer of Monarch Tractor, says the Wente operation shows faith in the product. "When you're running a 3,000-acre farm, it can't be just about sustainability; [the tractor] also has to add to the bottom line," Penmetsa says. "The fact that one of the oldest [vineyard] families are getting our tractors, the fact that they value the farm economics side as well as the sustainability side ... is all very exciting."

Both of the Wente Monarchs perform mowing chores. It's necessary work that also will provide operators with experience in managing the machines. The manufacturer says the compact utility Monarch cuts operating costs by $45 per operating day compared to similar-sized diesel tractors.

Monarch says that its electric smart tractor automates not only tractor operations but farming operations, as well. The Monarch tractor is essentially a data-collection hub, analyzing 240 gigabytes of crop data every day it operates. It can transmit crop-health observations to remote managers.

MULTIFUNCTION MACHINES

With machine-learning capabilities, the Monarch performs functions such as spraying or cultivating. It can haul supplies like a side-by-side utility vehicle, function as an in-the-field drone for recharging other units or supply power for maintenance work such as welding.

The Monarch Tractor incorporates a micro weather station that, among climatic conditions, monitors wind speed. The platform can autonomously -- or at the command of a manager -- cease spraying operations if local wind conditions exceed preplanned or regulatory parameters.

Here are manufacturer specs for the Monarch:

-- The Monarch looks like a compact tractor, narrower, but slightly longer.

-- Its electric drivetrain provides 40 hp (30 kilowatts) of continuous power and short-duration peak power up to 70 hp (55 KW).

-- PTO and three-point hitch are comparable to a diesel tractor.

-- Hydraulic capacity equals or exceeds conventionally powered units of the same size.

-- Monarch has two times as much torque as comparable diesel units.

-- Monarch batteries have operating times of up to 10 hours, under high workloads, four to five hours of operation. Battery recharge is up to five hours. To manage charging time, Monarch sells an optional swappable battery pack.

Compact utility tractors are a fast-growing segment in the United States, where compact units are typically used more than 100 days per year. Monarch Tractor ($50,000 for the tractor, $15,000 for a spare battery pack) eyes an annual worldwide market of 1.4 to 1.5 million units.

Monarch's Livermore, California, assembly facility is first filling preorders in California, Oregon and Washington, where they will work generally in vineyard, orchard and blueberry operations.

-- To see the Monarch Tractor in action, watch this video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcpi4vR-_44.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

-- Monarch Tractor: www.monarchtractor.com

-- Follow Dan Miller on Twitter @DMillerPF

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