Monarch’s autonomous tractor aims to transform farming

A tractor moves slowly down a long field between rows of grape vines, spraying a fine mist of water on the plants. The space is tight but even though there’s no driver behind the wheel the machine stays perfectly between the rows. Its electric motor is barely audible. Cameras and sensors watch each plant, looking for signs of ill health or pest damage.

This is the flagship product of Livermore, California-based Monarch Tractor, in operation at one of a small group of farms now testing it. Monarch is the first electric tractor company making a serious play for the tractor market, which is currently dominated by fossil fuel-burning (and noisy) diesel tractors. The tractor is still being tested and the company hasn’t yet announced when it will be widely available. The base model will sell for a reasonable $58,000.

Monarch’s founders saw a conversion to electric and autonomous farm equipment coming five years ago, driven by the labor shortages in the agriculture industry, as well as increasing pressure on farmers to reduce their environmental footprint.

The Monarch Tractor, which looks something like a cross between a big John Deere tractor and a riding lawn mower, can, with some supervision, operate itself in the field. It uses GPS and a system of cameras that see in all directions. “The cameras . . .make sure it goes down the row accurately and is doing that exact [right] operation, which is either spraying or mowing or hauling,” Monarch Tractor cofounder and CEO Praveen Penmetsa tells me. Computer vision models running on hardware built into the tractor’s roof can recognize signs like leaf discoloration or insect damage, and report them to the farmer. The farmer can monitor up to eight tractors, perhaps from a pickup truck or a home office.

[Photo: courtesy of Monarch]

This may be the look of farming in the future. Traditional farming practices are hard on the environment; diesel tractors, for example, generate 17 times the carbon dioxide of the average car. As a whole, the agriculture industry contributes about 10% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions; that’s fully a third the amount contributed by cars, planes, and trains.

Monarch’s tractor is small, and not designed for use by the major contributors of harmful emissions—the large farms that grow cash crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans. Monarch’s machine tops out at 70 horsepower, while cash crop farms use diesel tractors with 400 horsepower and more. The Monarch tractor’s range is limited as well. It can work for around 10 hours on one battery charge, and charging takes between four to five hours.

Instead, Monarch is targeting a smaller section of the industry–specialty farms that grow fruit and vegetables. And for that kind of farm, the tractor addresses several major pain points, including labor shortages. Farm work is seasonal and can require more laborers around busy times like the harvest, and less at other times. Farms in California are willing to pay between $23 and $30 an hour for tractor drivers, Penmetsa says, but they often have trouble filling the positions.

“It’s a very dull, dirty, dangerous job as well, which is why they migrate from being a tractor driver on farms to construction [jobs] and warehouse work,” Penmetsa says. Farms usually must train new hires for a few weeks before letting them on the tractor, so if an employee leaves, the farm has lost a considerable investment.

Data on demand

Monarch can also help with another issue farmers are facing: the farms’ customers—grocery stores and food distributors—want farmers to collect data about every step of the growth process, from planting to harvesting and storage. That’s because these buyers want to be able to prove to their customers—the consumers who eat the food—that the produce was grown in healthy and environmentally conscious ways.

Farmers are adapting to this more data-driven way of farming, but it forces them to invest valuable time doing paperwork. Penmetsa says the Monarch tractor, with its array of sensors and cameras, is constantly collecting data on farm work, which can shared with the food buyer.

[Photo: courtesy of Monarch]

“If we can allow the farmer to tell their story to the end consumer in a digital fashion, then the farmer benefits by being able to get more [business], and all of us benefit because we now know where our food came from and what went into it.”

Penmetsa says consumers’ demand for chemical-free farming can actually work against environmental concerns.

“Going from chemical farming to more mechanical farming has resulted in . . . additional emissions because you run the tractor more, [so] you’re now putting more emissions into the air,” he says. The farmer might, for example, use the tractor to uproot weeds, where an herbicide had done the job before. But if that tractor is electric, the environmental impact could be much less.

Naturally, a California agtech introducing electric power and AI into a huge and slow-to-move agriculture industry is a bit of a David-and-Goliath story. Monarch’s best chance of getting its technology into the fields of mainstream cash crop farmers might be through partnerships with big tractor makers such as New Holland and Deere. To whit, Monarch has just signed a deal with one farm equipment company, CNH Industrial, which plans to license Monarch’s electric and autonomous technology for inclusion in future low-horsepower tractors of its own.

Long before Monarch sees big profits, it will have to win a battle of hearts and minds among farmers and the equipment makers that supply them. Penmetsa believes his company has already made inroads there.

“What we have already done is changed people’s minds in the whole industry over the past year since we came out of stealth,” Penmetsa tells me. “We have been talking to a lot of tractor companies and now they’ve all realized that this is possible.”