Some ideas seem so right and so obvious that their execution seems inevitable. Monarch Tractor Founder and CEO Praveen Penmetsa has put together a team of engineers and developers who are bringing farming into the digital age.
I was invited to Monarch Tractor’s headquarters for a look at one of the Alpha Prototypes of their electric tractor.
Monarch Tractor’s Alpha Prototype is a modular electric farm implement about the size of a John Deere sub-compact 2 Family tractor. Simple and utilitarian in appearance, The Alpha Prototype looks familiar and totally modern. Closer inspection reveals elegant high tech features alongside universal hookups and decidedly rugged agricultural components.
I later sat down with Praveen Penmetsa to discuss the Alpha Prototype and Monarch Tractor’s vision for a connected world of electric-powered small farming.
Jason Fogelson: I want to know more about the Alpha Prototype.
Praveen Penmetsa: I’m originally from India. I come from a long line of rice farmers, and I still go back there quite often. That’s where the idea for our Alpha Prototype came from.
One time, I was back in India and there was a power cut. I was sitting there, thinking, “I wish I had one of our projects that we did for my other venture, Motivo Engineering” which was we converted a Toyota Prius to basically power the grid. Instead of you charging the Prius, the Prius can also charge your house and other equipment.
Motivo’s Vehicle to Grid Prius
We had done that project for the US military. I was sitting there, thinking, “You know, if I had that Prius, we wouldn’t have this power problem.” But then it was a very laughable idea, to have a Toyota Prius in the middle of the rice field. That’s when I was like, “Okay, how else can we get our platform that’s mobile onto the middle of the field?”
PP (cont.): I thought, “You know, if this needs to be a box of batteries with all these modern electronics on it, and it needs to be useful in other ways, then the ideal form factor is a tractor.” Then you can use it as a tractor, you can use it as a mobile battery box as well.
That was a genesis of the idea. Then I came back and we started brainstorming at Monarch Tractor with some of our engineers, and what it finally evolved into is what’s known now as the Alpha Prototype.
JF: That suggests unintended consequences – it’s great for a remote area like that, or in underdeveloped nations. But why wouldn’t a farmer in the United States want that, too?
PP: What was happening is solar is now so cheap that a lot of people are deploying it. But the challenge is, if you deploy solar somewhere, you still can’t get the power you want where you need it in the middle of the field. The solar panel might be close to your farmhouse, but then a mile away, if you need to run a pump, you still very often run a generator or run a diesel pump or you run cables out.
They were like, “Hey, we would like to use this. I can take this tractor, the Alpha Prototype, charge it at the solar panel at the farmhouse, and then use it as a tractor in the field or use it to power whatever I want in the middle of the field,” The other unintended consequence was they can also use it to store energy.
Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype
That’s the power pack kind of solution, all in one. There’s a lot of interest even here, being off-grid and being completely independent.
JF: Well, it makes total sense for a small, organic farm, because they’re reducing their impact even further. They’re not running a diesel tractor to harvest organic vegetables.
PP (cont.): Right, and that was the other thing that was – because we were targeting places like India and Africa, we had selected a small tractor, a 25 horsepower tractor. When we did the design and we started showing it to the people here, that immediately got their attention as well, because they’re not looking for a huge harvester.
Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype
They wanted a small, multipurpose, almost a UTV kind of vehicle, except this is electric, it doesn’t require diesel, and it also powers stuff.
Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype
JF: I have a lot of farmers in my family, and one of the things that takes up a lot of farmers’ time and skill is maintenance on their equipment. Looking at this piece of equipment, it looked to me like the maintenance was going to be extremely low, like it wouldn’t be keeping the engine running, because you don’t have to worry about that.
Then, the rest of it was so simple and almost modular that you don’t repair it. If something wears out, it’s because you used it wrong.
PP: Right, and that actually took a lot of effort. We spent a lot of engineering focused on how do we simplify this down to a point where somebody can fix this in the middle of the field in Africa and India?
The consequence out of that is it’s extremely robust and extremely simple. That really also works out, and the other advantage we have is, thanks to the day and age that we’re in, connecting the tractor to the individual is not that difficult anymore. When I say connecting, I’m talking about an electronic connection.
Alpha Prototype With Solar Panels
A tractor comes with a cellular connection and text messaging alerts. Not only can you use the tractor if, god forbid, you run out of energy or something, you can send a text message out say, “Hey, there’s only ten percent energy left,” back to the farmer.
Or, if there’s a problem, we can even remotely diagnose the problem. We can remotely control the tractor as well, back from Monarch Tractor. The reason we’ve done that is, “Hey, how do we support a farmer in Africa or India, from Southern California?”
PP (cont.): But that also means that local farmers here can take advantage of those features. On the one hand, it’s super robust. On the other hand, it gives you all the information you need, in a very unobtrusive way. You don’t need to be a hands-on mechanic to fix the tractor or to understand what the tractor’s doing.
Alpha Prototype field testing.
We tried to keep it so simple, that you just plug in stuff. We will take care of all the complexity, and that was the whole idea. We wanted to provide a platform that people can use and build on top of. What I mean by that is there’s a plug point & there’s a rotating shaft at the back.
It’s an electrical device. Plug it in. We will figure out whether you’re trying to charge the tractor or you’re trying to run an electrical pump or you’re trying to do something else. Or, if you want to design your own belt and pulley system, plug it into the back and run it.
Alpha Prototype tilling.
You still get all the benefits. We’re giving you the two basics of civilization, which is rotating shaft power and electricity. Now, it’s up to the farmers out in the field to make the implements they want, or design them. Or, use each other’s ideas to come up with stuff. You can still use all the things that are already in existence. That’s the cool thing, is it’s a standard PTO shaft. It’s a standard. Wherever you are in the world, as long as you meet that standard – and a lot of implements already do – just plug it into that.
JF: What’s the phrase “PTO?”
PP: It’s a power takeoff.
JF: Standard in farming, but not standard in cars.
Alpha Prototype plowing.
PP: Cars, yes. The tractor side of things, the way we designed it is you can reuse the whole tractor infrastructure. For example, the way we see it is, if you’re going to end up in eastern Europe, you could use the whole front half of the Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype unit and, by just changing an adaptor plate design, you can use the rear half of a Ukrainian tractor or something.
You go to China, again, take advantage of all the local manufacturing and assembly there, and you just plug in our Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype front half to the rear axle of a Chinese tractor. It’s the same thing in India.
PP (cont.): We designed it with that philosophy as well, because what we don’t want to do is to build a tractor in Southern California and ship it to eastern Europe or India or Africa. We want to, at the beginning, ship out electronics and the whole energy storage system and the connectivity platform, but eventually to just be the power electronics and everything else will be locally sourced and locally assembled, depending on the size of tractor that the local industry wants.
Alpha Prototype in India.
JF: You’re talking like a manufacturer now. Is that your intent with this project?
PP: At the beginning, yes. We will supply the whole tractor and seed the market. But eventually, we’ll end up being just a technology company that’s basically working on the power electronics and the software side of things. The local side of it will be licensed and where people will locally assemble these things, based on our designs that we provide.
JF: Are you getting interest from John Deere, Caterpillar, those guys?
PP: Not at this time, and the reason for that is also the reason why we were able to come up with this idea. This is not just a tractor. It’s more than a tractor. It’s more than the sum of its parts.
JF: Sure, or parked next to your house at night, it’s your power source overnight.
PP: It’s a combination of the electric grid, it’s a combination of the mobility side of things. It’s a combination of what’s called “the internet of things.” To combine all those three, that’s how you get Alpha Prototype.
PP (cont.): All those three need to come together for this idea to be feasible. At some level, it is not a cheap product, by any means. The Alpha Prototype tractor is more expensive than a power diesel tractor. Even though the price of the Alpha Prototype unit is roughly two and a half times the price of a normal tractor, when you read the value proposition, we expect it to be in excess of five to six times the value that you can get out of it.
Work station at Monarch Tractor.
We expect the tractor to pay itself off, depending on the price of diesel, in roughly two to three years. It’s really good.
The other thing that also happens with tractors that people don’t realize is that tractors are not used every day of the year, all days of the year, whereas we expect our Alpha Prototype unit to be used – when you’re not using it as a tractor, it’s going to be plugged into your solar panel, storing energy and powering your house or you’ll be putting power back into the grid, if you’re in California, and getting credits for it.
The utilization of Alpha Prototype is going to be extremely high, and not just that. The last magic piece of it is the fact that it’s connected, which means that we can remotely unlock and lock the tractor.
PP (cont.): What that means is some local entrepreneurs can buy five of these and basically act as Uber for power and for tractors. They can lease it out. If you’re a small farmer who’s living on a day to day basis, making just a few dollars a day, and you can’t afford to buy a tractor or rent one, you can still afford to lease one on the per hour, per energy pricing for a half hour.
All you need is to pump water for 30 minutes. Why should you deal with all the ramifications of renting, leasing, buying, and all this other stuff? We really spent a lot of time developing the Alpha Prototype unit over a couple of years. For example, you don’t need a smart phone to lease the Alpha Prototype. You just need a single phone that can do SMS messages. One simple text message will give you the status on the tractor back, as a text message.
We ran a completely different credit system, using just SMS messages. We really tried to make it as simple as possible. The farmer in Africa and Asia is going to love it, because of that.
Monarch Tractor Alpha Prototype
The cool thing is, the farmer in California is going to love it because the tractor will tell you how much energy you saved, how much energy you used, and it also tells you have five of these deployed across all your whole field. You know exactly what the energy status is. One of the things that we got is from – I don’t know what they call them, but it’s basically people who are breeding horses. They said that each time, they use a small tractor and the diesel tractor and the fumes and all that, once they go in, it scares the horses. They’re like, “Woah, this thing is super quiet. We want one of these.” It’s a nice, small tractor. It can go into the barn.
JF: it doesn’t spoil the mood for the horses. Any time you’re out in nature, the less mechanical noise you can introduce, the better. I could see luxury hotels wanting these, instead of running the regular maintenance equipment.
PP: That’s another interesting one that we got, another interesting thing from a company that wanted to use them basically as lawnmowers across these huge landscapes. It’s electric, so it’s not going to drop all this oil and all this other stuff. It’s not noisy.
JF: You could make it autonomous with telematics, right?
PP: Yes. The thing is, it’s already built to be autonomous.
Alpha Prototype in India.
JF: In the time that you’ve been working on this, battery technology has progressed rapidly. Are you equipped to use those updates in technology? Is there a way to upgrade the batteries after the fact?
PP: Yes, there is. The reason we thought of that right from the get-go is because of some of the challenges that we ran into on the costing side, to make sure that it’s affordable. We had to make sure that we offered a number of different battery technologies.
JF: Which batteries are in the ones that you sent to India for testing?
PP: That one actually has the lithium batteries, the lithium phosphate batteries.
PP (cont.): Very often, you’ll see tractors in India and stuff being used just for the lights. The whole tractor’s running, and you have three or four of them. You do all kinds of community stuff with the light from these tractors. We said, “Hey, if that’s the case, let’s make even more useful.”
Our headlights are actually on a boom. You basically can swing the headlight out and suddenly, that’s a big floodlight and can light up even more area. Also, due to the unique configuration of our tractor, we managed to find some space at the front of the tractor.
JF: Let’s talk about implementation. When are things happening?
PP: Right now, we have two tractors in India that are undergoing testing. That’s another thing that we wanted to do, that makes it very different. Right from the get-go, we said if we want to be serious about this, we have to build these units, take them to a real Indian village and give it to real farmers and walk away, and see how they’re going to use it and collect the data.
We also have another tractor in California that we want to basically do a road tour on and take it to different farmers here and see how they’re going to use it. We’re expecting to be surprised from both those use cases.
PP (cont.): By the end of the year, we’ll have a really good understanding of what the size of the tractor needs to be, the power needs to be, and how much energy needs to be on the battery. Those are three things we want to optimize and basically scale up to start getting 50 to 100 of these out into low volume production early next year.
JF: I think that you’re going to find so many other uses for this, and it just makes such incredible sense for so many. I can see that there will be companies who will latch on to your front end and build these incredible attachments for the rear of the thing, that no one has ever been able to do before.
PP: Yes, and that was the whole goal, that we get to that point where we have succeeded with our initial mission. It’s a very overly used example, but the reason the smart phone has been able to touch so many people is because it provides a platform. It’s so easy now that kids can write an app.
Praveen Penmetsa in a field.
All the complexity that’s encapsulated in a hardware and software goes in your phone, and the phone takes care of all the complexity. Similarly, if we take care of all the electronics and the power conversion complexity and the energy storage complexity on the tractor side, and give you a very easy to use platform, you should be able to enable even more innovation.
That’s the whole goal. Our goal is, again, not to come up with fine solutions, but to provide a platform for the users to come up with their own solutions.