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Meet The Maharashtra Team Behind World’s First Self-Driving Electric Tractor!

Wanting to replace conventional tractors and the problems they cause, Mr Kaustubh Dondhe founded Auto Nxt to revolutionise the agriculture field

There’s a lot of automation that can happen that isn’t a replacement of humans but of mind-numbing behaviour.
-Stewart Butterfield
Canadian entrepreneur and businessman,
Co-Founder of Flickr

Automation has come a long way, from watches that kept track of time, steam engines that powered numerous boats to autonomous robots that assemble your automated watches. Automation is a technology that speaks about the ingenuity of the human mind to harness power without needing to be supervised.

And empowering people with this technology is what AutoNxt Automation, a start-up from Mumbai, is aiming to achieve.

Auto Nxt was started in 2016 by Mr Kaustubh Dhonde. Backed by an experienced and dynamic team of over a dozen engineers, Auto Nxt is set to revolutionise the field of automation using disruptive technologies.

Auto Nxt’s flagship innovation is the self-driving tractor that uses no fuel at all! The battery-powered contraption is targeted to redefine the agricultural industry.

Autonomous Tractor of AutoNxt
Right: Mr Kaustubh Dhonde Photography: Autocar Professional / Omkar Dhas

The concept behind the tractor has a very humble beginning. Mr Kaustubh used to visit his native place in Wai, Maharashtra, during his years as an engineering student. It was here that he saw his relative selling away his tractor because of his inability to afford the year-long maintenance and the health problems it was causing. Mr Kaustubh was determined to change the scene.

Talking to The Better India, CEO of team Auto Nxt, Mr Kaustubh Dhonde says, “While the high maintenance has been an accepted trait of diesel tractors, farmers undergo serious health problems which were due to the heavy vibrations caused by diesel tractors. Hence, it struck us that an electric vehicle shall be the way and an autonomous mode for it shall be the perfect solution.”

Conventional tractors have a high operational cost. Further, its efficiency is determined by the skill of the tractor driver. So finding skilled labour for driving tractors is not easy in many parts of India.

Mr Kaustubh says that it started in January 2017, “with retro-fitting a tractor with an autonomous kit back on a rented tractor, after which we went on to buy a second-hand tractor to completely transform it into the electric and autonomous tractor for proof of concept.”

With a team of 10 members working for two years, the proof of concept of the autonomous e-tractor became palpable in 2018.

Autonxt 360 rendering

Detailing the innovation, he adds, “The tractor shall be a manual drive electric tractor on the road, and the autonomous mode shall be used only within the farms. The tractor will be able to run for 10 hours with an estimated range of 200 kilometres on a three-hour charge.”

The autonomous function of the tractor is one-of-its-kind. The farm where the tractor is to be deployed will be geo-fenced, which is a virtual geographic boundary around a perimeter. The tractor is connected to the tablet via an Android application, and can be controlled for various activities like ploughing, tilling and spraying.

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The geo-fence will keep the tractor in bounds and with usage, the tractor will learn better about factors like dynamics of the farm, soil type, implement type and time of the year which will help it carry out its functions.

When asked if the farmers will be able to afford the electricity, Mr Kaustubh clarifies, “It consumes about 50 units for one complete charge, and this cost comparison with diesel tractors translates into an operational cost of only 25% of the traditional tractors. Hence, the farmers, rather than having to worry about affordability, shall instead be saving.”

He further adds, “They will also be relieved from the dependencies of daylight, labour availability and diesel price fluctuation.”

AutoNxt Tractor
Photography: Autocar Professional / Omkar Dhas

The batteries used are a lithium-variant, suitable for long cycles and rugged usage, which can last long for more than 10 years with an almost similar level of efficiency. So life expectancy is about 10-12 years with proper maintenance.

Team Auto Nxt is confident that the many advantages of their innovation should enable the government to encourage farmers to embrace this novel technique. According to them, “The Government on its part should help the EV (electric vehicle) ecosystem by defining testing norms and raising test infra for off-road EVs & autonomous drives. It can encourage farmers to go electric by raising the slabs (up to a certain consumption level, the per unit cost is quite low at about Rs.4-Rs.6/unit) for the electric bill calculation.”

The start-up has been expanding into various automation assignments such as Water Pump Automation, Home Automation and a few client-based projects on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Automation.

Autonomous Tractor of AutoNxt Team
Photography: Autocar Professional / Omkar Dhas

“We are looking for an investment to build prototypes for our final design and have been able to gather interest from various top tractor companies which we hope to grow into a collaboration soon,” concludes Mr Kaustubh.

Auto Nxt’s innovation is one that India needs, as its engineering is a testament to the ease of the common man, especially of the farmers, whose jobs and lives depend on such upcoming technologies.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)


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