A brand new combine harvester buzzes up and down a field in eastern China without a driver on board means driverless tractors, chopping golden rice stalks and offering a glimpse of what authorities say is the automated future of the nation’s mammoth agricultural sector.
The bright green prototype was operating last autumn during a trial of driverless farm equipment as the government pushes firms to develop within 7 years fully-automated machinery capable of planting, fertilizing and harvesting each of China’s staple crops – rice, wheat and corn.
That shift to automation is key to the farming sector in the world’s No.2 economy as it grapples with an ageing rural workforce and a dearth of young people willing to endure the hardships many associate with toiling on the land.
Other countries like Australia and the United States are taking similar steps in the face of such demographic pressures, but the sheer scale of China’s farming industry means the stakes are particularly high in its drive to automate agriculture.
“Automated farming is the way ahead and demand for it here is huge,” said Cheng Yue, general manager of tractor maker Changzhou Dongfeng CVT Co Ltd, which provided an autonomous vehicle that was also used at the trial in the rice field in Xinghua, a county in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
However, the road to automation is long and littered with obstacles such as high costs, the nation’s varied terrain and the small size of many of its farms.
“I have heard of driverless tractors. But I don’t think they are practical, especially the really large ones,” said Li Guoyong, a wheat farmer in China’s northern Hebei province.
Most farms in his area are only a few hectares in size, he said by phone.