What’s Next? Self-Driving Tractors


Robotic mowers have become a familiar technology in the lawn care and landscaping business. But what if that technology was applied on a larger scale?

At a recent event, Intel demonstrated the possibilities that result when a high-bandwidth, low-latency private 5G wireless network is paired with edge computing devices. Intel collaborated with Federated Wireless and autonomous devices specialist Blue White Robotics (BWR) to deliver technology that enabled self-driving tractors at a California vineyard to automate repetitive tasks and free workers to take on higher-value responsibilities.

“BWR approached us with a specific problem,” explained Bhupesh Agrawal, director of Private Wireless Networks and Edge Computing in Intel’s Network and Edge Solutions Group. “They had a fleet of autonomous tractors in rural farmland, but these machines couldn’t talk with each other as there was almost zero connectivity on the farm. Without connectivity, there is no opportunity to process real-time data.”

Self-Driving Tractors
(Photo: Federated Wireless)

Working together for more than a year, the three companies solved the problem and the autonomous tractors were put to work on repetitive tasks – weeding, mowing and applying herbicides – in the farm’s two square miles of grapevines.

Here’s how it works: After a farmer plots the tractors’ routes, the fleet of tractors move across the vineyard in two shifts around the clock, navigating their way through fields without any humans at the wheel. Sensors on the tractors detect obstacles in their paths, while other sensors steer them around any anomalies.

Federated Wireless deployed a private wireless network to overcome a connectivity obstacle on the premises, which like most farms, is far from urban areas and does not have ample cellular or broadband connectivity coverage across all the acreage. That lack of connectivity means no sensors to collect real-time data from farm equipment and no way to automate farm tasks.

Powering the private wireless network was an edge server with a six-core Intel® Xeon™ D-1528 processor using Intel® Smart Edge™ software that linked the autonomous tractors and sensors.

Meanwhile, BWR delivered the kit that converted existing John Deere tractors into the fleet of self-driving machines.

“As we look to the future for autonomous agriculture, we’re extremely optimistic for what 5G edge solutions can enable for customers, helping them create new business and revenue models.”

– Caroline Chan, Vice President/General Manager, Network Business Incubator Division, Intel
Self-Driving Tractors
A self-driving tractor is displayed at the Intel Vision event in May 2022. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

Looking Ahead

Agrawal and his team are looking beyond grapevines to their next big challenge. They would like to scale into citrus farms and nut farms, while iterating along the way. Why nut farms? Mainly for the challenge. Dense clusters of nut trees like macadamia – a commercially critical crop to California – present complex scenarios beyond neatly trimmed hedgerows of grapevines.

Agrawal looks at these farms not just as bunches of plants and trees, but as valuable fonts of information.

Each is a data source that will “drive an insatiable appetite for compute demand at the edge,” he explained, but only if we can properly capture and process that data – while “delivering bigger impact to our customers, our partners and the community that we live in.”