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article imageGPS, self-steering and autonomous tractors

By Ken Hanly     Oct 10, 2017 in Technology
Farmers have been using GPS systems on their tractors for some time. Now they are being used with self-driving tractors and soon with autonomous tractors that drive themselves.
The shift towards precision agriculture is promising a major boon for farmers and their businesses. Now self-driving tractors are adding to this smart farm effort, allowing farmers to find even more efficiency an value for their businesses. According to Market and Markets this shift in agricultural technology is just the beginning: the research firm predicts precision farming could reach almost $8 billion in market value by 2022.
Farming with precision
Precision agriculture involves the use of GPS has been popular for some time now, allowing farmers to better apply fertilizer, seed, herbicide etc. much more efficiently, reducing expenditures while producing a higher yield and creating less stress on the environment.
This method of agriculture typically involves farming management that uses GPS and satnav systems to get up to date information about crops and administer resources accordingly. An example of this would be crop dusting planes equipped with GPS enabling them to apply chemicals only where needed.
Self-Steering Tractors
Gene Hart is a technician at the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory. He is helping to evaluate the performance of a tractor that gets its steering signals from the $21 billion U.S. Defense Department's GPS system. The researchers hope to boost efficiency of farms and also free farmers from having to drive a tractor all day. The research may lead to other advances in robotic agriculture.
Hart still needs to be in the tractor in case there is an obstacle in the field or something goes amiss. He also has to make U -turns at the end of rows. Although according to Wikipedia : "In early 2008, Deere and Company launched its ITEC Pro guidance product, an automated system based on global positioning technology which automates vehicle functions including end turns." The self-steering tractor can go faster, work in fog or at night when there might be difficulty seeing landmarks to guide operators.
After he makes a turn, Hart watches a line on a computer display to make sure the tractor is back on course. Researchers believe that the self-steering tractor can traverse a field with no more than a three inch variation. Hart said operating the tractor was a lot easier and less tiresome than driving a conventional tractor. The equipment needed to convert a regular tractor to a self-steering one is said to cost about $50,000. Qin Zhang, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois, claimed that conventional tractors required operators to spend about 50 percent of their time just steering. The appended video shows the operation of a John Deere self-steering tractor.
Autonomous Tractors
Zhang sees the self-steering tractors as simply a forerunner of robotic agriculture where tractors would be autonomous running without a driver.
The University of Illinois has already developed a tractor that uses GPS, gyroscopes, a camera and a computer to drive itself from the implement shed to the field. It can then plant the field and return to its shed without the intervention of a human operator on board the tractor.
Back in the 1990's John Deere sought only to manufacture tractors that could function effectively. After more than two decades the company decided that more was needed: in order to create a satisfactory self-driving tractor, they had to replicate the farmer.
Dan Leibfried, of John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group said: “We have to have the ability to sense everything the human would inside of the system related to the quality of the job. Whether it be preparing the soil, planting the seed, protecting the crop, or harvesting it.”
A blend of GPS and other location tracking sensors, plus image sensors and telematics allows advanced John Deere tractors to navigate fields today and self-steer. The latest model, the S700 combine, can automatically adjust its equipment based on the harvest it sees — but it still has a camera so that the farmer can look to see if it is operating correctly.
It may be some time before the farmer will simply be able to sit at his kitchen table and watch on a monitor as his tractor automatically plows, seeds, or swathes and his combine harvests the fields by itself. He will be able to correct any errors remotely.
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