The robot tractor and precision farming

Automated tractors are the first results of a marriage between farming and computing that could make working the land a desk job. James Mitchell Crow details how they work.

Anthony Calvert

1. The farmer can start, monitor and stop the harvester remotely, using a smartphone app.

2. Making sense of all the incoming data is the harvester’s electronic brain, a laptop computer inside the machine’s cab.

3. A laser scanner fixed just above the cab acts as the harvester’s eyes. The scanner can tilt and pan to build up a 3D picture of the moving scene it faces, positioning it perfectly at the edge of the row while scanning up to 30 metres ahead for obstacles.

4. Japan has its own set of positioning satellites, the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, to enhance the accuracy and availability of GPS signals. Thanks to the receivers mounted on its roof, the robot harvester knows its position within the field to within 3 cm.

5. Bumping across a field, the harvester’s roof-mounted GPS receivers are in constant motion, pitching and rolling relative to the ground, reducing positioning accuracy. To counteract the effect, the Inertial Measurement Unit uses gyroscopes and accelerometers to calculate the harvester’s posture and adjust positioning data accordingly.

You might think technology doesn’t get much more rustic than the humble tractor.

Today’s machines don’t look too different from their rusting forebears, but don’t let the mud-spattered paintwork fool you. The latest are semi-autonomous hubs of technology that barely need a driver. On entering a field, the farmer fires up a self-steering system and lets go of the steering wheel. The tractor pilots itself across the field and back in perfect rows, using advanced satellite navigation systems to pinpoint its position to within a centimetre or two, better than any farmer could achieve.

Every time the tractor enters the field, it follows precisely the same wheel tracks as before, minimising soil damage. And the course it takes has been pre-calculated to cover the field with the minimum number of passes. Leaving the steering to the tractor, meanwhile there is the seeding and spraying to be done. But even here, banks of electronics lend a hand. They control boom sprayers and seed dispensers, to deliver seed, fertiliser and pesticide according to the needs of each patch.

But on any farm there are always plenty more jobs to be done. The next step seems obvious – let the tractor do its job on its own while the farmer gets on with other chores.

This transition is already beginning. German tractor maker Fendt has developed a system in which the farmer controls two tractors at once, sitting in one while its fully automated partner trundles alongside in the adjacent row.

How long until robot tractors and harvesters are sent out to tend fields on their own? In Japan, it may not be long at all. Faced with a chronic farm labour shortage due to its ageing population, the Japanese government is funding a project led by vehicle robotics expert Noboru Noguchi at Hokkaido University to turn today’s fully functioning prototypes (right) into commercial products within five years.

The meeting of Information and Communications Technology and farming promises much more than vehicle automation. Pushing the envelope of precision agriculture, sensors and machine vision systems on robot tractors will individually monitor each plant in a field to maximise yield without applying a single drop too much fertiliser or water. The same systems will identify and take out weeds with sniper-like precision. Technologies that have been tested range from inkjet-precise squirts of herbicide, to chemical-free systems such as lasers and flame guns.

Fast, accurate robots that will happily work every day of the year have already taken over on the factory floor. Now the muddy frontier of the farmer’s field could be robotics’ next conquest.

And when this promise is delivered, farming could ultimately become a desk job, with the farmer, far from any mud, remotely managing a fleet of robots tending the fields. There’s nothing rustic about farming any more.

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