In the labs of the world’s biggest farming equipment manufacturers, engineers are working on a “killer app” that could one day rival the ox, the reaper and the modern-day combine in historical significance.
That killer app — an automated tractor — is already capable of turning, shifting gears and seeing through darkness and dust. It can follow a crop line with sub-inch precision in moonlight, can make decisions to raise and lower heavy farming implements on its own and can save thousands of hours and countless dollars for farmers.
And it may one day be capable of doing its job without need of an operator.
“Everybody in our market has an eye on this as the end game,” says Aaron Senneff, manager of hardware and systems engineering for John Deere Agricultural Management Solutions . “Autonomous tractors — ones that operate without a human in the loop — are definitely what we’re all trying to do. It’s the next great frontier for the ag equipment market.”
Deere, which will release its iTEC Pro automated guidance product this spring, has been a leader in development of autonomous technology. But it’s not alone. Case IH and New Holland have teamed with Trimble, an expert in GPS and optics, to develop automated tractor guidance systems, as well.
“This has huge implications for farmers,” says Michael Boehlje, professor in the Dept. of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business . “It profoundly increases the number of acres that can be done using the same equipment.”
To be sure, no one has developed a completely autonomous tractor yet. Operators are still needed, mainly for safety reasons. Engineers fear today’s sensing technologies aren’t reliable enough to ensure an autonomous tractor will stop if a child runs in front of it.
But the new breed of self-guided tractors can do virtually everything else. They can precisely follow a line of crops, turn around at the end of the field and keep doing it for hours on end.
“The operators are there just to be aware of what’s going on around them and act accordingly,” Senneff says. “Beyond that, there is very little for them to do.”
The question — even among many career farmers — is why do it? Why put an automatic guidance system on a tractor when you’re perfectly capable of driving a straight line without help?
Equipment builders, of course, have the answer. “If you’re doing it day-in and day-out, at night and under all sorts of weather conditions and field conditions, fatigue starts to take its toll, no matter how good an operator you are,” says Barry Nelson, a spokesman for Deere. “But if you have the satellite to keep you in line, it doesn’t matter if it’s nighttime or the conditions are dusty or if the crop is overlapping the row. You can still get more work done in less time.”
Indeed, agricultural industry experts cite so-called “overlap” as a key problem for farmers. Studies show that when driving a tractor from row to row, operators often overlap