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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

Rethinking the Tractor

Advancements in farm equipment have allowed farmers to cover more ground with less labor. It makes sense that as the average size of the farm has grown, so has the size of the farm equipment.

However, according to Zack James, Founder and President of Rabbit Tractors, smaller tractors may be more efficient and effective for some applications.

Zack’s company designs and builds small, autonomous, swarm-enabled tractors that are a fraction of the size (and cost) of the modern tractors you see in row crop fields throughout the midwest.

“The idea of Rabbit Tractors is that instead of running one huge piece of equipment at a time”, says James. “We can run 5–10 smaller units, and have a lot more flexibility in how to deploy them. Because they do a lot less damage and weigh a lot less, are a lot small and have a smaller wheel base, we can be a lot more proactive in how we manage fields.”

The tractor is about the size of a golf cart, and fully loaded still weighs less than 1,000 lbs. The farmer can see all of his/her deployed tractors on a phone or tablet as well as any data they might be collecting.

The units are not powerful enough to replace a planter or harvester. Instead, they are designed to do targeted replanting and spraying. With the small size, implements for various uses can easily be attached and removed from the same unit.

Another benefit of the small size is how easy it is to transport equipment from one field to another. By doing this, a farmer can utilize more equipment in the field rather than having to spend time driving between fields.

“When you get the driver out of the tractor” explains James, “then we can take the cab out of there, we can take out the air conditioning unit and the air ride suspension, and the cost of the tractor drops significantly. Enough (savings) that it more than defrays the cost of the autonomy put into it.”

From Idea to Business With Iowa Agri-Tech Accelerator

While one might think that ideas for new tractor technologies are hatched on farms or from within other equipment manufacturers, Zack’s story may surprise you.

He has a Finance degree from Indiana University and a law degree from the University of Michigan. While he did grow up in Northwest Indiana, he does not have a farm background.

He crafted the idea while learning about autonomous vehicle technology. Through his finance education, he became convinced that this could lead to cost savings for farmers if applied to farm equipment.

Rabbit Tractors is now over a year old. Their first prototype is up and running, with plans to do a small pilot in 2019 and roll out commercially starting in 2020.

A huge help getting the company off the ground, was their involvement in the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator. Zack met with representatives of John Deere, an investor in the program, who agreed with his thesis that there is a market for these small, autonomous units.

The encouragement from Iowa AgriTech and industry insiders was exactly what Zack needed. He gave up a lucrative law career to develop Rabbit Tractors. “It’s more than just a crazy idea in my head now; it’s something that other people agree with. So that confidence was a big part of it” he explains.

Once he committed to the accelerator and to building a real business, he had to shift his own role from that of a visionary to that of a manager. He worked with the entrepreneurs-in-residence to plan out weekly and daily tasks.

“Going through the accelerator first helped me realize that I needed to think big and I needed to think fast. This is a space, agtech in general and autonomous vehicles specifically, is moving extremely quickly. What I had heard is that in five years this is where (the market) is going to be.”

One of the most significant areas that Zack benefitted from the accelerator was in customer discovery. Not coming from an ag background, he didn’t have many contacts in the industry to get feedback from. The first week of the accelerator he was able to sit down with over 100 people that were either farmers or worked in some area of agriculture. He left with a much better idea of the customer he was serving and the problem he was solving.

AgLaunch and Creating an Open-Source Platform

The big challenge with technology like this is farmer adoption. Many farmers have been inundated with the “latest and greatest” and false promises of cost/time savings and ROI.

Zack was going to need more than just customer discovery. He was going to need to get this technology in the hands of farmers. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Enter AgLaunch.

AgLaunch has a network of farmers that are willing to try new technologies and offer feedback. Rabbit Tractor’s partnership with AgLaunch allows Zack to focus on building the product with the confidence that he will for sure be able to test it with real customers.

Farmer adoption is especially critical with a technology like this. Farmers are (understandably) a bit fearful of letting a piece of equipment seemingly roam on its own. On top of that, since most of the system is on a computer chip, farmers will likely not be able to repair it if it breaks.

One of the neat aspects of Rabbit Tractors is that they really hope to become a platform for other technologies to be built upon. A sort of autonomous delivery mechanism for other innovations.

Zack explains:

“We don’t want to be in the implement making space or the component making space. What I’ve witnessed in the autonomous, and really the entire agtech space is that these companies have a great component technology, but they don’t have a good delivery method for it. So they have to tackle two tasks: they have to make their technology, then they have to make a delivery method, whether it be a drone, or an autonomous vehicle, or what have you. What we want to be is just that delivery method half of that. So instead of actually going out and writing the algorithms and doing the computer vision work for the see-and-spray technology, we just want to be a small platform that another company can put their technology on. And it works a lot better (1) because it’s autonomous, and (2) because it’s smaller which is going to let it be more precise.”

Zack has already heard from farmers and technologists with good ideas for implements and/or see-and-spray type technologies. He hopes that having an autonomous tractor to mount the technology on will help these developers get to market quicker.

Rabbit Tractors’ focus is really on row crops. Part of that is the low ground clearance (about 50") of the units. There are west coast startups focused on the specialty crop space, but few are creating automation tools for Midwest row crop agriculture.

I continue to be impressed with the collaborative attitude that seems to permeate much of agricultural technology. Zack is hopeful that Rabbit Tractors will succeed, but he is also hopeful it will help other innovators be more successful:

“There are a lot of technologies that need to be developed before wide-scale autonomous tractors are rolled out” he explains. “So it’s really going to be a collaborative effort of a bunch of different players on the implement design side, on the hardware design side, and on the software design side…. if I can save one of these players a few months in development with the work I’m doing now, that will be successful.”

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