A California-based startup claims it can help farmers be greener and more profitable by offering the world’s first fully electric, self-driving tractor.
According to Monarch Tractor, the compact tractor can be programmed to perform tasks such as plowing, harvesting, and mowing and can run for up to 10 hours on a five-hour charge.
Although it does not require a driver, it must have a designated remote operator who receives real-time alerts and can stop the vehicle if necessary to comply with US regulations. It is equipped with sensors that detect livestock and crops, as well as collision avoidance systems that allow it to operate autonomously alongside farm workers.
Monarch founder and CEO Praveen Penmetsa says he understands how technology can shape an industry after nearly two decades of working in the mobility and energy sectors. “Seeing those two industries transform provided me with a template and the idea that agriculture worldwide is ready for transformation,” Penmetsa tells CNN Business.
Monarch claims that when one of its tractors replaces a diesel vehicle and is powered by renewable energy, it can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 53 tons per year, which is the equivalent of removing 14 gasoline passenger cars from the road.
The tractors can also collect data while operating, providing farmers with information on field and crop health and long-term yields, as well as alerting them to problems such as irrigation leaks or crop discoloration.
Penmetsa and his team of more than 50 engineers at Monarch’s headquarters in Livermore, California, raised $20 million in March, and the company is launching a series of pilot initiatives on working farms in three states.
It will sell its first tractors to farmers in California, Washington, and Oregon over the next two months, with prices starting at $50,000. Monarch will work with the farmers to test the vehicles, and the company hopes to begin commercial production later this year.
According to Monarch, the tractors can save farmers thousands of dollars in labor and fuel costs each year.
According to David Rose, an associate professor of agricultural innovation at the University of Reading, farmers are under increasing pressure to feed a growing population while also meeting increased customer demand for sustainable produce, all while dealing with labor shortages.
“Society is asking farmers to do an awful lot,” he says. “I don’t think we look at our plate three times a day and think of all the challenges farmers have faced to put that food on the table.”
According to him, the most transformative feature of the Monarch tractor at this point is that it is electric. “To move away from the gas-guzzling, diesel-guzzling.. equipment is fantastic,” he says.
Other companies working on driverless tractors include Bear Flag robotics in California, Agrointelli in Denmark, and John Deere, which has developed an autonomous electric tractor concept. Monarch is the first company to sell a self-driving electric tractor.
However, many countries lack a legal framework for self-driving cars. “Policy and regulation needs to fundamentally get a grip on this new way of farming,” Rose says. “Until then, I think the potential benefits of autonomy won’t be fully realized.
The prospect of farmers being able to use data to provide greater transparency to customers excites Penmetsa the most. He envisions a QR code on food packaging that customers can scan to get information about how the produce was grown.
“We want consumers to value what the farmer has gone through to put food on the table,” he says. “If farmers can tell that story through the data, I think we can create a direct bridge.”