Professional pyrotechnician Zack James is lighting his next fuse under the tractor market.
The founder of Rabbit Tractors develops autonomous farm robots intended for multiple tasks and to be scaled up in number as needed, challenging traditional tractors.
Based in northwest Indiana, Rabbit Tractors is a so-called swarm farming startup among a field of like-minded agricultural developers cultivating AI for efficiency and sustainability.
Swarm farming handles agricultural activities with a “swarm” of multitasking robots — sprayer, weeder, seeder, harvester and hauler.
The technique is taking root in early stage AI efforts around the world, including in prototypes from Nindamani and Twisted Fields.
Rabbit Tractors’ bots are intended to be modular and always in use. In addition to running on electricity, they are lighter weight and cost less to operate than traditional tractors.
“They are wildly cheaper because they are so much more simple,” James said. “The problem with big farming is that you can spend a million dollars on a tractor that only works three weeks of the year.”
Corn Belt Roots
James, 29, is no stranger to agriculture. The son of a teacher and police officer, he grew up in rural Indiana. He started a beekeeping supplies company before studying finance at the University of Indiana and then getting a law degree from the University of Michigan. Along the way, he ran fireworks shows — designing and building the equipment — and taught himself programming and metal fabrication.
He developed Rabbit Tractors at the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator, a mentoring program backed by farm equipment giant John Deere and Dow Dupont, among others. He also joined the AgLaunch accelerator program, which is supported by USDA and state funds.
Rabbit Tractors is in trials with farmers in Tennessee, with backing from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
James has been testing his prototypes on farming acreage owned by his uncle, and he expects to move into a larger trial next year on the land.
“We’re getting close to the point where I can farm the land autonomously and make more money than he can just renting it out,” he said.
Swarm Farming Bots
The farming bots sport 12 cameras and four lidar sensors that run simultaneously. An onboard NVIDIA Jetson Nano enables real-time object detection from the machines, helping the bots navigate in any direction. They run neural networks to identify rows of crops and can then just follow them like “train tracks,” he says.
The machines communicate with each other via wireless mesh networking, so what’s learned on one robot can be shared with all units. This is important because cell connectivity is often nonexistent in the middle of corn fields.
Rabbit Tractors is a member of NVIDIA Inception, a program that helps nurture nascent AI companies by providing technology guidance on GPUs, access to Deep Learning Institute courses and marketing opportunities.
“Inception lowers the time spent on researching products because we can contact an expert and get guidance. And the deep learning courses help me get up to speed quickly so that I can strategically plan product development with our engineers,” said James.
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