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Autonomous self-steering tractor could make farmers' lives a lot easier

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September 19, 2011

The self-steering autonomous tractor could soon see tractors working the fields on their o...

The self-steering autonomous tractor could soon see tractors working the fields on their own

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Many of us are eagerly awaiting the widespread adoption of autonomous cars to free us from the hassle of driving to and from work. This kind of technology also has applications beyond the roadway, especially in areas like farming where driving is the work ... and it's not on paved surfaces with markings and signs laid out. Dealing with the uneven and inconsistent terrain of a field poses unique problems that a team from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) and Flanders' Mechatronics Technology Centre (FMTC) in Belgium are claiming to have overcome with their robotic self-steering tractor.

Although it might look pretty simple to the untrained eye, keeping a tractor on track over inconsistent terrain can take a bit of skill explains Erik Hostens, project engineer for FMTC.

"Only experienced tractor operators have the skills needed to work a field with precision. The job of an operator is really quite complex: he observes the tractor's current position, makes a judgment based on terrain conditions and the route to be followed, and, based on all this, decides the speed and orientation of the tractor."

To develop their tractor navigation system the team started by installing a linear propulsion system to press the tractor's accelerator and steer. They then added a computer and various positional sensors, including a GPS system. Because traditional navigation systems aren't good at dealing with multi-terrain conditions, different settings must be calibrated for each terrain type to enable the tractor to drive on both hard and wet terrain.

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.

The self-steering tractor finds its bearings

It's currently not as easy on the eye as the RoboTrac autonomous tractor concept we looked at in 2008 and in a demonstration, the self-steering tractor prototype initially veers pretty wildly off the pre-set course. But after a couple of rows it quickly finds its bearings and is able to follow the course with a high degree of precision.

"By putting automated agricultural machines in the fields, ever-increasing operator costs can be significantly reduced. On top of that, thanks to the 'smart steering' capability of the robot, changes in terrain type have become superfluous," says Vincent Theunynck, of New Holland.

The researchers from FMTC and KU Leuven are set to unveil their first prototype self-steering tractor at the 30th Annual International Agriculture and Horticulture Days of Mechanisation in Oudenaarde, Belgium on the 24th and 25th of September.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
7 Comments

This technology could make farmer's lives easier, but it will also cost a lot of people their jobs. Technology, it gives one man the abilities of a thousand men, and then it burdens the Earth with the thousand people it just made obsolete.

Nelson
20th September, 2011 @ 05:06 pm PDT

This company is a little bit late to the show. The tractor company, John Deere, has been making tractors that could drive them selves for more than 10 years. In theory, the tractor could drive itself to the field, plow, plant, apply "prescriptions", and harvest the crop without the driver touching the steering wheel or the throttle. It makes use of highly accurate GPS and sophisticated mapping software. They are already into their third generation controller. It is called the GS3000. The one thing that stops complete automation is liability. Who is responsible when things go wrong? The farmer. It is his or her job to sit in the cab am make sure that nothing goes wrong.

EE_Tim
20th September, 2011 @ 05:46 pm PDT

Nelson, the ONE constant you can always count on is CHANGE! Better to plan for it the best you can than to be caught unawares.

So, I'm wondering why something more basic or primative has not been emplimented before now. I set up a steering system for my tractor to build a new straight road to my house using nothing more than a lazer target with multiple optical recievers on it to tell me when I was off-target. It would not have taken much more to add a Ardinio-based processor setup to steer and perhaps turn around to make multiple, preprogrammed passes. I look at technology and especially electronics to continue to automate all kinds of things in our lives! I really enjoy when good minds come together via the net to create something new, to automate, or to make a formally expensive technology reachable to anyone who wants to join the group and follow the process. This can be high technology made easy for the common man or it can be a solution to help a 3-world farmer and his family live a better life!

Will, the tink
20th September, 2011 @ 07:16 pm PDT

Interesting article though another company in North America has completed their version of the autonomous tractor and has video demonstrations, utilizing the machinery in actual field operations This company is Kinze Manufacturing and appears to have an excellent version of this technology.

neelyjeep
24th September, 2011 @ 12:15 pm PDT

Whose going to pay if this machine damages something its insurance as always. Question is WHO will insure it is the BIG QUESTION. Just like cars being driven by automated highways the question is WHO will pay if the program controlling the grid or track or beam or whatever goes haywire. Thats not answer techno buffs can answer although they try but fail - Its a job of the LAWYERS.

dionkraft
24th September, 2011 @ 09:28 pm PDT

dionkraft

Its interesting you are concerned with litigation when automation is suggested.

What do we do today when humans are in control or in many cases not and accidents happen? We are not beyond having accident's so why the negative attitude over automation which we depend on more than most would admit.

Take for example modern flying which is mainly automated.

dgate
26th September, 2011 @ 09:39 am PDT

This makes much more sense that self-steering cars.

Andreja Sinadinovic Vijatovic
24th March, 2013 @ 04:23 pm PDT
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