Sitting there on a couch in front of a video display screen at the National Farm Machinery Show recently, I was locked out from everything else going on. My eyes were glued to the screen, watching this reactor and planter go back and forth, turn on the ends, and then come back again. I could hear someone else say what I already knew "Hey, look, there's nobody in the cab!"
The tractor that drives itself if part of Kinze's Autonomy project. It may sound like something out of a Buck Rogers comic book, if you're old enough to remember who that character was. If you're not, he was a space explorer who was ahead of this time in the '50s.
The tractor was pulling a six-row planter on the farm of the owner of Kinze Manufacturing. When it wasn't planting, the video switched to a fall scene. The tractor pulled a Kinze grain cart, and went from home base after a truck driver unloaded the Kinze grain cart into his semi, back out to the combine. It picked up a load of grain from the combine on the go, and headed back to the staging area, all with nobody aboard.
This wasn't trick photography, it's the real deal. And while you may not think you're ready for it on your farm, the fact that someone can do it is equivalent to someone who read about Buck Rogers in the '50s, and then saw a man walk on the moon in the late '60s. When IU used to draw up the farm of 2000 when I was in high school in the '60s, IU had tractors driving themselves, crops under greenhouses, and helicopters applying materials of the crops from the air. Sound familiar?
The striking thing is that when I asked the Kinze rep handling technology questions how many years it would be before farmers got a look at this technology on their own farm, he gave me a funny look. That's because they're hoping to bring out driverless tractors on a limited release basis much sooner than years away. Exactly how soon depends upon how the rest of their testing goes.
And the amazing part of the planting demonstration, the field was surrounded by trees with point rows and a crooked border on one side. It didn't seem to bother the tractor. It still seemed to know where to go.
If you can imagine it, someone can build it, or they already have. Corn production has reached that exciting but slightly scary threshold.