Autonomous Smart Tractor from Monarch Takes Flight

With goals for a more sustainable future, vineyards in California are exploring the fully electric, driver-optional, data-driven Monarch Tractor. The in-field hubs of data are helping farmers maintain root to fruit visibility, analyze moisture levels, count fruit clusters, and perform other agronomy functions. Zero emissions and a realistic price tag makes this vintage of autonomous tractors appealing to many.

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Image credit: Monarch Tractor

Every year Monarch butterflies fly up to 2,500 miles as they migrate from the United States and Canada to Central Mexico at speeds from 15 to 25 mph. Over in Livermore, CA, Monarch Tractors move at a slower pace through the hundreds of acres at the world-renowned Wente Vineyards.

Like the butterflies, the Monarch tractor produces zero-emissions. The compact, but powerful tractors are capable of 40 horsepower continuously and can reach 70 horsepower while operating a full 10 hours in the fields. The tractor has a top speed of 25 mph but spends most of its time on the vineyard cruising along–and gathering a wealth of data–at 3 to 5 mph.  

The data-driven, 100 percent electrical Monarch Tractors have been rolling through Wente’s northern California vineyards since 2019. Both organizations hail from Livermore, CA, and share the mission of creating more sustainable farms.

Monarch Tractor camera detection

Image credit: Monarch Tractor

Data-Driven Tractors Cultivate Smart Farms

Monarch released the first prototype of its new breed of tractors in 2015. The tractors combine electrification, automation, machine learning, and data analysis. Think of the tractor as an in-field hub for data collection and observation that, when needed, can operate as a generator and a local source of electrical power.

At 147 inches long, the Monarch tractor collects and analyzes visual and digitized data from the field through a 360-degree camera surveillance system and can process 240 gigabytes (GB) of crop data every operating day. MATLAB provides machine learning, with each tractor collecting data that’s sent to a secure cloud where Monarch’s AI analyzes the data for actionable insights. Using AI and ML, Monarch is designed to help farmers:

  • Identify water stress
  • Apply sprays with more precision
  • Keep workers safe during extreme weather events like heat or wildfire smoke and pesticides
  • Provide root to fruit visibility
  • Analyze moisture levels
  • Assess pest pressure
  • Count clusters
  • Aggregate and analyze data to increase yields and make proactive responses on the farm.

From a home office, farm managers get first-hand insight of what is going on in the field from the tractors. They can receive tractor alerts, updates on current micro-weather conditions, detailed operations reports, data collection, and analysis for more efficient farm planning via a smartphone or personal device. If there is a preplanned pesticide spraying, for example, but it falls on a particularly windy day, the Monarch micro weather station, which monitors wind speed, will cease spraying operations.

Monarch Tractor

Image credit: Monarch Tractor

Economical, 360-Degree Cameras Keep Eye on Harvest

In terms of competition, John Deere will always be the Goliath in agriculture machinery. Monarch does have advantages, though. Monarch is offering its tractor at $58,000, compared to a similar John Deere version at $500,000 and diesel-powered tractors that range from $60,000 to $75,000.

Smart vision technology is one reason Monarch can reduce costs. Rugged, inexpensive camera technology forms the visual sensor pack in Monarch, taking the place of expensive, delicate Lidar sensors that are often used in autonomous automobiles. Monarch opted to use camera technology since the tractors are only going 2 or 3 miles an hour and have a stopping distance of 4 or 5 feet. Cameras are also well suited to recognizing the nature and condition of crops.  

The Monarch tractor can work with farmers' current implements, as well as the next generation of smart implements. Innovations like these from Monarch, John Deere, and other companies are changing what’s possible on the farm. Smart agriculture tools could mean better economics for the farmers, safer jobs for workers, healthier food for consumers, and a longer life for our planet.   

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