Monarch Tractor enters a new era of AGTECH innovation today with the official launch of their new all-electric, compact, utility tractor. The vehicle features fully autonomous operation, but in a form factor that will be immediately familiar to millions of farmers around the world.
I recently had the opportunity to interview two of Monarch Tractors co-founders in a recent podcast episode of The Mobile Robot Podcast. On the show, I talked to CEO Praveen Penmetsa, and CTO Zachary Omohundro about the company and the design decisions behind the tractor.
An Experienced Executive Team
First, it must be noted that this isn't the first go around for Praveen and Zachary. They have both started previous companies together. However, for Monarch Tractor, they took their time doing market research during an extended stealth period.
Initially, they retrofitted a standard diesel compact tractor with smart controls and tested it at alpha customers around the world. From this experience, they went back to the drawing board to rethink what the next generation of autonomous tractors should look like and how they should operate.
While their AGTECH competitors are designing and launching autonomous tractors that "look like a box with wheels" (per Praveen Penmetsa), the Monarch team developed an entirely new all-electric platform and wrapped it in a familiar form factor: the compact, utility tractor. From a distance, you'd be hard pressed to know that the Monarch Tractor is anything different from a standard compact, utility tractor - except the absence of any diesel smoke coming from the tractor. The machine also has an affordable price tag, starting at $50,000 (USD).
The Monarch Tractor Can Connect To Any Existing Implement
The philosophy behind the design is simple, according to Penmetsa: "we wanted to create a new tractor platform that would be immediately familiar to a farmer, and be capable of using all of the farmer's existing implements in their barn. Farmers spend a lifetime acquiring, customizing and tuning their implements to work their crops and on their property, we didn't want to upend this investment". The result is a tractor platform that a farmer can connect immediately to any implement in his barn and begin field operations with Monarch Tractor on day one.
This design decision separates Monarch Tractor from the rest of the market, but it also removes a key barrier to entry for their target market. Monarch is not attacking large, corporate farming operations, rather they want to own the next generation of farming solutions for small and medium sized farms, worldwide. The compact, utility tractor is the most ubiquitous farm vehicle on the planet.
All Electric Operations
At the heart of the tractor is a huge battery that borrows the same battery technology being utilized by the electric automobile market. Penmetsa said, "all the farmer has to do to charge the tractor is to unplug his welder and plugin the tractor charging station - every farmer has a welder in his barn".
The use of an all-electric tractor has several additional benefits according to Penmetsa. "Farmers often use a generator on their tractor to produce electricity for in-field operations, or to run some implement. The Monarch Tractor battery has enough capacity to power electric implements OR it can even be used as a portable battery to deliver electricity anywhere on the farm that it's needed".
The weight of the battery is also an advantage in that it helps to balance the tractor and provide ballast weight for specific implement operations. Typically a farmer will need to add ballast weight to the front of the tractor to counter the drag of an implement in the field. The Monarch Tractor battery effectively does this.
Smart Implements Are The Future
Another innovation for the Monarch Tractor is that the control system that can autonomously control the tractor, can also fully control any implement attached to the tractor. The vision cameras and sensors on the tractor can be used to also guide the control of the implement during in-field operations.
The tractor is completely "drive by wire" which means that while it has a steering wheel and pedals, those controls are not mechanically connected to the machine, rather they are electric input devices. A farmer can override the autonomous controls at any time. But, the tractor can also observe the farmer while he drives the tractor, and then learn from and repeat the exact sequence of driving and implement inputs. This allows the tractor to operate in autonomous mode without the farmer onboard.
CTO Zachary Omohundro imagines a future where implement manufacturers will quickly evolve to produce new types of "Smart Implements" that can operate in ways not yet imagined. The Monarch Tractor design team have future proofed the platform by developing both a new communication interface that will enable the tractor to communication with and share data with these smart implements. The company is actively developing new partnerships with implement manufacturers who share this vision.
Deep Ties To Viticulture
The Monarch Tractor teams has deep roots to the wine-making industry through the family ties of Chief Farming Officer Carlo Mondavi (of Mondavi winery fame). The company is headquartered in Livermore California, which a wine-making sub-region of its own, while the Mondavi wineries have their roots a few hours drive north in the Sonoma Valley area of California. Monarch Tractors will be tested and validated on the Mondavi farms, and you can expect that with a reference like that, the company should do well in the wine-making market worldwide.