The Batmobile of Agriculture Could Ka-Pow Pollution-Spewing Tractors
A tricked-out tractor spawned in Southern California could mean an end to dirty diesel generators that farmers everywhere rely on to power operations in the field.
This Batmobile of agriculture, a tractor called HARVEST, runs on batteries that can store up to seven kilowatt-hours of energy. The tractor can be charged from solar panels, wind turbines, or by plugging it into the grid, giving farmers new and healthier ways to till land.
For farmers in the developing world who lack a reliable source of electricity, the tractor can power irrigation pumps, lights, and fans that cool off harvested crops.
The tractors can also be daisy-chained together to create a “microgrid” capable of lighting up half a dozen homes with carbon-free electricity.
“It’s a bottom-up approach to power…one that addresses how to feed the world’s growing population,” said Praveen Penmetsa, a mechanical engineer who developed the HARVEST at Motivo Engineering in Torrance, California, along with company cofounder Zachary Omohundro.
Penmetsa was inspired to take a new approach to farm power after witnessing the challenges faced by his father, a third-generation Indian rice farmer, and his uncle who worked in the country’s power plant industry.
Armed with an idea, Penmetsa won a grant worth $850,000 from USAID’s Powering Agriculture program in 2013 that’s giving him the chance to develop and test the prototype over the course of three years.
“A typical farmer with partial grid power in India might have power until 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., but if he doesn’t have battery at home to store power at night or a generator, he lacks power for transportation to the field and for other activities—and power usually comes back on in the late evening,” Penmetsa said. “[With HARVEST] he doesn’t have to lug a diesel generator around, and at night he can plug it in and charge its batteries for the next day.”
A HARVEST prototype will be tested on a small urban farm in the Los Angeles area next month. After a bit of fine-tuning Motivo plans to ship out 50 tractors to India, where the company will market it to entrepreneurs and agriculture distributors.
One innovation Penmesta is excited to test out is the HARVEST’s tracking feature: Owners will be able to locale their tractors via a mobile phone so they can be rented out or shared by a group of farmers.
But Penmetsa doesn’t plan to stop there. Motivo is now in the first stages of developing a more advanced HARVEST model—a 15-kwH lithium battery model loaded with software capable of powering a smart microgrid.
“The software will enable HARVEST 2.0 to make smart choices on which energy sources to use and when,” Penmetsa said.
At a cost of $30,000, Penmetsa says it will be competitive with other tractors on the United States market. The company hopes to sell about 500 of the second model in a few years while phasing out the first model. Four years down the road, Motivo wants to get hundreds of thousands of HARVEST 2.0 out in the marketplace.
“While the first HARVEST will be the tractor modified, HARVEST 2.0 will be the tractor reinvented,” he said.