What does the future of farming look like? Will Indian farmers continue to use livestock and human labour to work the land or will technology reduce this burden to a large extent? That’s the question that many agritech startups are grappling with. Even as farmland income is being boosted by the use of technology, more can be done to solve the burden on farmers.
As Tesla unveiled its self-driving truck and Uber continues to build an autonomous car network; India too has a contender in the autonomous vehicle space — AutoNxt Automation. The Mumbai-based company’s prototype autonomous electric tractor has been developed for a range of farming operations including tilling, spraying pesticides, ploughing, sowing seeds and more.
Once a farm is geofenced using geographical coordinates, and the farmer has defined a route for the tractor, AutoNxt’s autonomous farmhand can retrace that path endlessly on a daily basis, making sure that any operation is conducted consistently. The tractor becomes responsive in a matter of seconds and even alerts farmer’s mobile or tablet devices when it sees any obstruction for more than five minutes.
Speaking to Inc42, Kaustubh Dhonde, CEO of AutoNxt Automation, said the problem with owning a traditional tractor in India is that there is a scarcity of people with the skills to drive a tractor. It also involves high operational expense (one needs to run the tractor for 1000 hours a year to make the purchase viable), and health hazards, because driving a tractor, according to Dhonde, is like driving a car without shock absorbers on a very bad road.
“You can imagine the kind of pain that they [farmers] go through continuously and they tend to ignore it because obviously the average income of a farmer is like less than INR 7000 per month (in case of a small farmer), so it does not make sense for people to own a tractor.” – AutoNxt CEO Kaustubh Dhonde
In order to overcome the high ownership cost of traditional tractors, farmers usually rent or lease the tractors from big farms or businesses offering agricultural renting services. The diesel-run tractors when replaced with autonomous electric tractors effectively reduce the tractor ownership cost by half and eliminate the need for a skilled driver. However, Dhonde noted that this does not eliminate jobs as AutoNxt tractors will still need someone to drive them from the farmer’s home to the farm.
Building Ola, Uber For Tractors?
AutoNxt envisions the adoption of their tractors to be similar to ride-hailing companies such as Ola and Uber, wherein people will buy tractors and then hire people to drop them to the farms.
Currently, AutoNxt tractors take three to four hours to be charged and the vehicle’s range can vary from four to five hours depending on the kind of farm operation that is being performed. Operating on a different battery chemistry than lithium-ion, AutoNxt tractors can be charged anywhere, whether it is a single phase or three phase power supply, just has to be a three-pin socket.
While, the company did not disclose the battery chemistry to us, Dhonde said that their battery will last for 10 years without any complaints (considering the average use of the tractor). Founded in 2016 by Dhonde, the company is said to have spent INR 10 Lakhs in building their tractor prototype, including all the iteration costs as well.
Earlier this month, Sun Mobility’s Chetan Maini and Sandeep Maini have invested in AutoNxt Automation’s ongoing funding round. The brothers had invested through their new electric mobility firm, Virya Mobility 5.0 LLP. Chetan Maini is the vice-chairman of SUN Mobility and is also known for pioneering India’s first electric car REVA, which is now with Mahindra electric.
With these fresh funds, AutoNxt is looking to execute product changes based on customer feedback received during the pilot tests. Following this, it will work towards attaining certification such as green number plates, and road transport office (RTO) clearance which is expected to take four to six months. It’s only after this that the tractor can be launched commercially, with the initial target audience being affluent farmers in the direct-to-consumer model, and collaborations with companies like EM3 Agri Services and other state government schemes, which allow farmers to rent tractors.
AutoNxt Looks To Tackle The Challenge Of Affordability In India
Geographically, AutoNext wants to first sell to grape cultivators in wine-producing regions such as Nashik and Karnataka. According to Dhonde, “This will be an ideal location to test the new technology both autonomous and electric, because conditions are much more in control in horticulture as compared to other crops.”
The farmers in these regions are comparatively richer and thus would be more open to testing new technology, he added.
But the real success would be in making these autonomous tractors more affordable to own for all kinds of farmers. Dhonde believed that the Indian automobile industry has always focussed on the price point as they want to sell it directly to individuals, as the purchasing power of Indian customers is relatively lower than the first world countries.
But that’s where AutoNxt is different, due to the high-tech nature of the product.
“We don’t want to make cheaper products by eliminating two crucial technical elements in the product. We will definitely want to scale but initially we are focused on making sure that whatever electric vehicle we are making, tractor, for example, is perfect and people trust it,” said Dhonde.
AutoNxt knows that not each and every farmer can afford to buy its tractor — Dhonde tells us only 18% of farmers can actually afford to own a tractor. Currently, the company is said to be in advanced talks with major tractor manufacturers to start offering the electric tractor to farmers.
After the successful launch of their tractors, the company plans to explore newer applications of their autonomous electric vehicle technology in other places where vehicles or labour follows a predefined path. One such example are the coaches used for taking passengers to and from planes at airports.
Another company working on a similar autonomous electric technology is Israel-based Taranis, which has also developed functionalities for farm analytics and predictions as well. Further, US farm equipment maket John Deere has also announced an autonomous electric tractor earlier this year. However, the tractor comes attached with a long extension cord to help it navigate through the farms.
The Indian government has been aggressively pushing for electric vehicle adoption across the country to reduce greenhouse emissions in one of the world’s most polluted countries. In line with that vision, AutoNxt’s electric tractor can help bring down carbon emissions at the farm-level too.
Further, India’s agriculture ministry was said to have developed a farm equipment rental app for farmers in August. The app was envisioned to help farmers hire tractors, rotavator and other farm-related machinery on rent for with flexible tenures. The government had set up 38K hiring centres to support this renting process.
The government’s renting model is similar to what AutoNxt is looking for their upcoming market launch and after bringing consumers on to the sharing economy, perhaps it’s time to bring the same concepts to the agriculture sector to make autonomous technology more accessible to a lot more farmers.
Correction Note | 19:00, December 10, 2019
The company has spent INR 10 Lakhs towards building its autonomous electric tractor prototype. Earlier version of this article erroneously noted the spend to be INR 10 Cr.