Autonomous tractors are not everyone’s cup of tea amidst driver concerns they will soon be out of a job. However, this is not stopping manufacturers from looking down the driverless route, and Japanese firm Yanmar has teamed up with researchers at the university of Hokkaido to this end.

The first result, a system that allows one driver to operate two tractors, was shown as a video at the 2015 Agritechnica. There was no news at last November’s show but the two partners continue to test a number of systems, one of which allows any number of tractors to work together as a so-called swarm. Already in field tests, the four Yanmar tractors are all linked via GPS. Activated remotely from a tablet, once the width of the implement has been programmed, the three following tractors use the same A-B line as the lead tractor.

The front/rear/left/right obstruction detection sensors are claimed to work well, and all four tractors automatically slow down and stop when an obstruction is detected within a specified distance. One of the most challenging aspects is ensuring all four tractors turn at the headland without colliding. Currently, the four tractors perform only simple tasks, but head of the project professor Shin Noguchi reckons this is just the first step, and in the future autonomous tractors will become much smarter.

There is a good reason why Japan is pushing ahead with driverless technology. With two thirds of the country’s working population aged over 65, the agricultural sector is faces a serious labour shortage. Japan’s agricultural ministry has set objectives for remote-controlled systems to be commercially available later this year and fully-autonomous tractors by 2020.