Farmer Jerry-Rigs Amazing Autonomous Tractor
For years, science fiction has told us that we’d have flying cars, robot housekeepers, and telephone wristwatches. We’d be whooshing around the galaxy in giant space ships, as artificial intelligence took care of our every need. The future looked bright back in the 20th century, but we’re only now starting to see the first viable SciFi innovations. Besides those stupidly expensive Apple watches, we’re finally seeing partially autonomous cars that can detect obstacles, and prevent us from having a crash. But farmers have been using autonomous tractors for over a decade. Take for example in the below video, where this farmer jerry-rigs an autonomous tractor to create efficiency and help automate his farming process. Technology and farming automation technologies are on the rise and the latest driver-less innovation from farm equipment makers like Kinzie Manufacturing will…blow your mind.
Brief History of Driveless Tractors
At the beginning of the 20th century, the gas-powered tractor was starting to replace the horse as the most efficient way to farm. To make a profit from working the land, farmers have to control their costs by using labor, land, and resources in the most efficient way possible. The gas powered tractor allowed them to maintain larger crops, without spending much more time or money. And that obviously resulted in higher crop yields and higher profits. A hundred years later, overhead satellites were providing new ways for farmers to increase productivity without significantly increasing their overhead. A few mouse clicks now allowed them to plot their fields with GPS, and utilize every square inch of ground to plant even more profit.
This new “Precision Farming” required machines that could maintain the newly optimized fields. A century after the tractor replaced the horse, GPS enabled tractors were starting to replace human beings, as satellite guided steering systems directed the massive tractors around the precisely mapped rows. In 2004, just 5% of new tractors were fitted with auto-steer systems. Four years later, that number had eclipsed 50%, as farmers embraced these efficient, self-steering machines.
Kinzie Autonomous Grain Harvesting System
First introduced in 2011, the Kinzie Autonomous Grain Harvesting System is the result of a collaboration with Jaybridge Robotics, a leader in autonomous system development. After much study, Jaybridge took some off-the-shelf components that are known for their durability, then wrote some computer code to make everything work together as one autonomous unit. The self-aware John Deere tractor that you see in the videos, can recognize the difference between a plastic water pipe, a cow, and an ear of corn. The on-board computer knows that it’s “ok” to run over some corn in a field, and it will drive itself around the other obstacles. To make this possible, the Kinzie autonomous system utilizes 2 robust cameras, automotive radar (the same system that automakers use to control the Adaptive Cruise Control system in your car), and a spinning laser range finder (LIDAR). These front and side mounted components help the tractor to “see” its surroundings, while a precision GPS unit on the roof tracks the tractor’s position to within a couple of inches.
The autonomous tractor is controlled from a touchscreen Android tablet, and long-range commands are sent via cell signal (cell coverage is apparently pretty good in the farm-belt). From the cab of his combine, Mr. Farmer can send one of four commands to his RoboDeere. ‘Follow’ will make the tractor follow behind the combine, ‘Offload’ will bring the tractor and grain cart along side the combine, allowing it to ‘offload’ grain into the trailer. Once the tractor is close to the receiver, short-range radio signals communicate commands and help coordinate tandem driving. And finally, ‘Idle’ tells the tractor to sit there and wait for a command, and ‘Park’ will make the tractor drive itself to a designated parking area at the edge of the field, so its grain trailer can be unloaded.
The Kinzie autonomous harvest system has been used by real farmers during the 2012-2015 fall harvest, and development is ongoing. This type of autonomous agricultural system should be widespread within the next decade, as other farm equipment makers (like John Deere) and this Macgyver-like farmer below develop their own versions of the technology. And to answer the obvious question; the reason that we’ve got autonomous tractors before autonomous cars, is because driving a big tractor across an open field is a lot easier than asking a car to navigate rush hour traffic. Plus, farms are considered private property, so the autonomous vehicle regulations are much simpler and pose much less risk than autonomous cars on the public road.