Much has been made of autonomous advancements in the ag industry during the last few years, as a possible pathway to increased field efficiencies and a solution to labor shortages.

But transitioning from high-horsepower tractors to smaller, robotic implements will require a substantial shift for manufacturers and dealers, says Dr. Scott Shearer, chair of the Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Dept. at Ohio State University.

A driver of this change to driverless ag machinery will be a realization of cost savings for farmers and their operators, Shearer says.

"We watch this race to get to the biggest, highest horsepower tractor in some respects. I go to the manufacturer and say ‘Why do you build such big tractors?’ And they go ‘Well Dr. Shearer, because farmers buy them.’ So I asked farmers, ‘Why are you buying such big tractors?’ And they go ‘Well, Dr. Shearer, the manufacturers build them.’ The one thing that’s inherent in all that is there is a human operator on that piece of equipment. All of a sudden we remove that human operator from that environment, and first of all, we cheapen up that environment. We go from $1,000 in engine horsepower for a tractor, to probably down to 600 or 700. We don’t need the cab, don’t need the high intense discharge lighting, don’t need the air suspension seat, the leather seat or the seat heaters. There’s a lot of things that you take off of that tractor and the form of the tractor changes markedly. But again, it’s a different era."

Shearer adds that as smaller autonomous equipment is developed, dealers should expect a different service model for keeping that machinery functional on customers’ farms.