Driverless tractors are a new form of autonomous technology that if mass produced will change farming drastically. The machines use GPS and other technologies to farm land without the need of a driver, simply with the aid of a supervisor monitoring the progress at a control station. These tractors have the potential to augment farm efficiency.
He stressed that the process had already begun, with the development of robotic milking machines and, in the US, the robotic ‘weed zapper’ used in lettuce crops.
He showcased a prototype strawberry picker able to identify which strawberries are ripe and to pick the fruit without damaging it. The development of ‘sensitive’ prosthetic hands will provide further opportunities, particularly in the fruit sector, he said.
The simple answer is that the role of the driver has changed. When guidance aids are used the source of the guidance information changes. With the more advanced driverless system, the driver no longer needs guidance information...
The steering system the team developed analyzes the terrain conditions and estimates the expected wheel slippage. Taking into account the current terrain type and the model of the tractor, the system calculates the optimal speed and turning radius in real-time.
"This 'smart steering' allows for precision down to the centimeter," says Gregory Pinte, of FMTC.
"We're farmers, and we understand that farming is all about production whether corn sells for $3 per bushel or $7," Veatch said. "With Iowa weather, there are only narrow windows for planting and harvesting. You need more innovative equipment for more production."
One demonstration at the media day showed a combine turning circles, with the grain cart capable of remaining precisely under the combine auger. That led one farmer to say that such precision was probably not possible with a human driver, without spilling some of the corn as it's harvested.
Automated tractors vastly augment the efficiency levels of farmers. They are more precise in their calculations and therefore complete the maximum amount of output for the least amount of input. For the most part, there are no tribulations that are more frequently encountered by humans such as dropping tools, forgetting to attend to a certain part of a field or growing tired quickly. These machines can take advantage of ideal planting and harvesting weather by working for many hours and possibly even days without stopping.
Anderson doesn’t think GPS is accurate enough, so his autonomous tractor uses on-the-ground APS (area positioning system) technology for its guide system. APS is a military-inspired positioning system and is a wholly owned subsidiary of ATC. This company started devising its own control system seven years ago, which uses computers, laser and radio to control the tractor within a fraction of an inch and can control up to sixteen tractors at once.
Instead it requires a “Controller”, ie., a person to monitor the SPIRIT™. Up to sixteen (16) SPIRIT™ tractors can be monitored in multiple fields from one control location. The control location must be situated less than 25 miles away from the movable or moving SPIRIT™ tractors. This means that multiple SPIRIT™ tractors can be monitored in one or more fields from one base station or one portable controller.
The Spirit navigation system uses two lasers mounted on the tractor, which bounce signals from three or four mobile transponders placed around the field. Lasers are supplemented with 150 MHz radios, which are needed to overcome line-of-sight issues with laser systems.
Each tractor uses on-board sensors to detect people, animals, and other vehicles in the path of the machine, stopping for such obstacles until it receives advice from a supervisor over a wireless link.
Although this technology to detect people, animals and other objects in the path of the machine is probably very well engineered and tested, one will always have the fear that it may mess up. Without a human inside the tractor driving it, one may not always feel secure concerning the deteciton technology. However, on the other hand, one could argue that the possibility of error with the driverless tractor is about equal with possibility for human error when operating a tractor, therefore not increasing the potential danger of farming when using an advanced piece of equipment in lieu of a driver.
Initially, the tractors will be primarily for tillage. They’ll have “follow-me” technology, to trail behind a lead vehicle between fields and then follow another tractor, “just like a hired hand would.” Eventually, they’ll be guided by an Area Positioning System, which will allow the tractor to work on its own, after the farmer sets positioning beacons and proscribes parts of the field that are wet, or otherwise to be avoided.
One big concern about the mass production of automated tractors is job replacement. These tractors have the potential to put a lot of people out of work. Many are excited, saying the tractors allow farm workers to focus on other areas of the farm, but if a farm becomes too efficient, eventually redundant workers will be let go. It's true that the creation of driverless tractors creates the need for supervisors and programmers, but this means the workers that are replaced by the tractors either have to learn a whole new set of skills as supervisor or have to look for work elsewhere.
Developing a robotractor is, like developing an autonomous car, is a difficult task and one with its own hurdles to overcome. To make it work, the machine must observe its position, make decisions, and decide speed and orientation much like a human.