A tractor loaded with the latest technology cuts a straight line through an Illinois cornfield, planting crops along a two-mile stretch before making a U-turn and heading back the other way.
There’s just one thing missing: a driver.
Well, at least a human driver. An assortment of gizmos, including a gyroscope and a global positioning system, are doing the driving.
The technology was developed by University of Illinois agricultural engineers who have spent the last three years working with two of the country’s largest farm equipment makers to create a completely automated tractor.
“What we needed, so to speak, is an artificial human. Basically we’re mimicking a human – eyes, brain and hands,” said Qin Zhang, who headed the university’s research. Zhang and his research team equipped four Case IH tractors with a gyroscope, GPS, video camera and computer, enabling the tractors to guide themselves – turns and all – through corn and soybean fields used to test the system.
The GPS receives positioning signals from a satellite, the camera tracks the path of the tractor relative to the crop rows, and the vehicle motion sensor monitors speed, pitch and implement use. The information is fed into a computer, which steers the tractor through the field.
One of the tractors operated without a human driver for the past two planting seasons. In one test, researchers programmed the tractor to drive itself from garage to field, where it planted several acres of crops before returning to the garage – all on its own.
Zhang worked on the self-guidance system with researchers from CNH Global, one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural tractors and combines in the world. The university is currently working with John Deere to conduct further research into autonomous farming equipment.
Researchers stress the technology is intended to help farmers, not replace them with a fleet of tractor drones. Tractors using the self-guided technology could operate at night and in the fog. They also go faster and, because of the GPS system, are accurate within a couple of inches, meaning higher yields because farmers can plant more rows of crops.
Companies such as John Deere and CNH Global have begun to release scaled-down versions of the technology. Currently, farmers can buy GPS-guided equipment that helps with positioning on straightaways, though the farmer still has to sit in the cab to turn the tractor. Robotic machinery similar to that being developed for tractors also has been used in high-risk mining for several years.
Few doubt the technology works, but the question is when it will be ready for commercial use. Issues of safety and cost must be solved first. The sensory equipment on experimental tractors isn’t advanced enough to detect obstacles such as stray cows, said Bingching Ni, a CNH project engineer who worked on the university project. And legal hurdles would have to be overcome before regulators would allow a fully automated tractor loose in a corn field, Ni said.
Cost may be a tougher issue, with Zhang estimating a self-guiding system at more than $100,000. That’s more than a tractor itself costs.