Park Your Car, Drive a Tractor

Farmer Iron

Automating tractor operation isn't easy, but new tech tools have made it more achievable.

Published on: November 10, 2011

In this month's Farmer Iron column found in your favorite Farm Progress magazine, I took a look at that robot tractor idea Kinze demonstrated ahead of the fall Farm Shows. This is exciting tech for managing grain harvest, and for planting.

While it's not ready for prime time - yet - it's interesting to note that some of the systems in use are similar to what you can find on new cars. Think about it. Ford, GM and others are now making it easy for anyone to parallel park. The system uses sensors and a control program that you engage when you've lined up the car as required by the manufacturer. Pull ahead of the wanted parallel space and, select "park my car" and the machine does the rest.

It's a set series of instructions in a defined space. Sound familiar? For running a grain cart, the same idea can applied there. You're dealing with a specific set of instructions in a defined space. And when you start breaking down tasks that way, you can see how engineers are making that happen.

Blind, sort of

One of my earliest forays into farm equipment robotics was more than 15 years ago in a field out east. I connected with a team of Carnegie Mellon engineers who were working on a prototype project for New Holland. One of the challenges then was the concept of the "vision system." Engineers then weren't working with well-defined RTK field information.

Instead, they were concerned about recognizing obstacles in the tractor cab. It was a big challenge and different systems were inadequate for the job. Consider the idea of "knowing" exactly what the obstacle was and having machine decisions to make.

Instead, the approach today - thanks to the rapid adoption of GPS systems - is to map the tile lines, standpipes and trees in a field and have that in the instruction set. Then the "vision system" can use LIDAR (for light detection and ranging) and radar systems to "see" unexpected obstacles. When those obstacles pop the system can stop.

We're not going to get into the specifics of the Kinze system, but you can see how such a system would be pretty safe. And safety will be the biggest concern when big machines move around a field. Kinze and it's design partner, Jaybridge Robotics, are working through those issues. And it appears they're pretty close to marketing the tech for your farm.

Stay tuned.