Bootstrapped company’s driverless electric tractor uses machine learning tech to alert the farmer when required.
At a glance:
Founder: Kaustubh Dhonde
Year it was founded: 2017
Where it is based: Thane, Mumbai
The problem it solves: Builds electric autonomous tractor for farmers
As a young boy, Kaustubh Dhonde was fascinated to see the tractor in his farm. While he loved automobiles in general, he had a special affinity for tractors. It was therefore not surprising when Kaustubh would invariably ask his grandfather - why they never bought a new tractor to do all the farming.
His grandfather told him tractors were a pain to drive and maintain, and for a farm that was less than an acre, a tractor didn’t make sense. “One of my uncles sold a tractor that was a year old. This was during my first year of engineering when I was excited about doing something interesting in the field of robotics,” says Kaustubh.
When Kaustubh asked his uncle about his decision to sell the tractor, he realised the problem was the same. Diesel tractors make a lot of noise, have high operational costs and also cause a backache.
Building the team
It was then that Kaustubh thought of building a driverless tractor. He roped in his friends at DY Patil Institute of Technology and school - Kshitij Dadhekar, Karan Makharia, and Vishal Dubey to build the tractor.
It was Kshitij who suggested they begin with making an electric tractor, and they later decided to build an autonomous electric tractor, which gave birth to AutoNxt. The startup was set up in Thane in Mumbai in 2017.
Kaustubh roped in a school friend, Vishal, one of his college juniors, and Mukesh Prajapati. Kaustubh’s mother joined in as his partner. Shatavarth Cheruvu joined the team through an introduction from Vishal, and Uday Akasapu came in through common friends. After a year, they had a team of 14 people.
Sourcing the funds
The team rented a warehouse space in the outskirts of the city, and converted half of it into an office, and the other half into a workshop.
In order to make money, they started building an Android app and made GPS-tracking solutions for Maharashtra police forces and custom projects. “We even made our own line of home automation systems and executed a few technical consultancy projects to self-fund the prototype,” says Kaustubh.
They invested whatever they earned from other projects in the company, and also received funding from an angel investor, a stalwart in the automobile industry. They pooled in resources of Rs 50 lakh to build the tractor prototype, and launched it in one of the major agricultural exhibitions - Krishithon.
Building the tractor
“We have built a prototype of “The World's First Electric Autonomous Tractor”. The tractor is a 30 HP tractor, which mimics any diesel 30 HP tractor present in the market today. The tractor does not require diesel or petrol - it is completely based on electrical charging,” says Kaustubh. The prototype has been built using existing spare parts and vehicle parts. The automation has been built over it.
This helps save on the heavy diesel expenses and operational costs.
Kaustubh explains it is also completely autonomous on the farm. The farmer just has to go to the farm and set the boundary using his smartphone or the tablet provided by AutoNxt, or in case where the boundary is not even, the farmer can even drive the tractor around the boundary of the farm.
The farmer has to set its direction and instruct the tractor what kind of work it has to do - for example - ploughing or harvesting or spraying. Once the option is selected, the tractor will start the work, and if there is any obstacle, it can decide whether to press a horn or ignore the obstacle, based on the Machine Learning (ML) algorithms.
Once the job is done, the tractor notifies the farmer, and then the farmer can collect the tractor from his farm. The tractor also has a smart charging sense, meaning it knows how much battery it requires to get to the nearest charging station and accordingly it decides when to stop the work and inform the farmer. It can be charged anywhere as the tractor has a charger on board, which is lightweight and portable.
Smart vehicle market
The market for smart vehicles is growing in India. This year, Ather Energy also launched two vehicles. There is also Pune-based Tork Motors in the sector. Ather and Tork have signed more than 150 vendors – around Bengaluru, Chennai, and Pune ‑ to build their bikes. Coimbatore-based Ampere is also looking to launch electric vehicles in the country.
On the other hand, the global market is different. One of the biggest players in the space globally is Tesla Inc. It works with over 35 suppliers for its three products - among them is the long-range sports car Roadster. Such is the brand of the company that the recently-announced Model 3 has received more than 5,00,000 bookings even when its production is still 18 months away
AutoNxt is looking for a funding of $1.5 million to build and test five tractors, get them certified, registered and acquire customers and dealers through various shortlisted exhibitions and dealer meets in different states. Government funds and support are also required as the product will help farmers live safer, healthier and financially better lives.
Speaking of their future plans, Kaustubh says, “Imagine every village having a fast-charging station, where electricity is available at a subsidised rate, the farmer being able to charge tractors from this station in just two hours and using them for their own farms or business.
The farmers will have to pay four times less to rent this tractor in the near future, and the operating expenses also will come down by four times once this tractor is launched in the market.”