TOKYO -- Japanese machinery makers are developing technology that promises to make farming life easier. In Japan, as in other countries, the agricultural workforce is aging rapidly. With fewer young hands to help out, farmers are looking to autonomous vehicles, drones and other technologies to lighten their workload and maintain production.
European and U.S. farm equipment makers are developing autonomous machines for cultivating wheat. Japanese manufacturers, on the other hand, are nearly ready to bring to market autonomous technology for rice farming.
Japanese manufacturer Kubota on Tuesday unveiled its first driverless tractor. The tractor uses GPS to determine its location, and can drive itself using data input on the shape and size of the field it is operating in. The vehicle can be used for tilling the ground and applying fertilizers and pesticides.
Steady as she goes
Autonomous farm equipment often has difficulty operating on uneven muddy ground, but Kubota's tractor can handle rice paddies under these conditions. The company plans to bring the vehicle to market as early as in 2018.
"We are seeing growing demand for farm equipment that can be operated easily, even by those who are not familiar with farm work," said Masatoshi Kimata, Kubota's president. The company also announced on Tuesday that it plans to develop 15 farms across Japan over the next 10 years, using them as a testing ground for high-technology farming. It will also accelerate development of automated rice planting technology.
Iseki, Yanmar and other Japanese manufacturers are also working on self-driving tractors. They will start selling their products in the domestic market before moving into other countries in Asia, where farmers are also graying.
Drone technology, meanwhile, will enable farmers to monitor soil conditions more efficiently. Yanmar is preparing to roll out a drone-based soil-testing system. The drone is equipped with remote sensors that can measure moisture, acidity, and other soil conditions from the air. The data is analyzed to help the farmer select the proper fertilizer and improve the soil.
Other heavy equipment makers are looking to become more involved in the agricultural market. IHI is developing technology to monitor the growth of crops with satellites and share the data with farmers. The monitoring system assesses crop conditions based on satellite imagery, together with soil data collected through field sensors.
Toyota Motor has developed a cloud computing-based agricultural management system aimed at large agricultural cooperatives in Japan. Using the system, rice farmers agricultural companies and farmers on the fields can share information on crop conditions and how their work is progressing. The system can also suggest work plans, such as when to plant and harvest.