Tractor of Tomorrow
If Batman switched from fighting crime to growing corn, this would be his tractor.
On Wednesday, Oct. 19. Racine-based Case IH showcased its autonomous, or driverless, tractor at the National FFA (Future Farmers of America) convention in Indianapolis.
With a curvy body that's packed with technology, the tractor takes some cues from the Batmobile.
But there's no steering wheel or driver's seat. Instead, the tractor uses satellites, radar, cameras and other digital gear to navigate the fields and take orders from a remote operator's computer or tablet.
Farm equipment companies such as Case IH are developing technologies that could enable farmers to control multiple crop production machines at once from the comfort of home. Farmers could benefit from lower labor costs and increased efficiencies in the fields.
The Case IH driverless tractor was recently shown at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, IA. It's a concept vehicle, at this point, but the company wanted consumer feedback.
Nearly half the farmers surveyed at Farm Progress said they would consider using an autonomous tractor if the technology is proven.
"From an early adoption standpoint, that was a staggering response," said Robert Zemenchik, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems' global products marketing manager.
At a base level, the autonomous vehicle is a Case IH Magnum tractor that's made in Racine. Yet the differences are quickly obvious, such as no cab or steering wheel, plus layers of high-tech gadgets.
It's a big machine aimed at large-scale operations.
Multiple tractors could be run in one field or separate fields on the same tasks or consecutive ones. One person could control them all from a laptop or tablet.
Through the use of onboard video cameras and LiDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging) sensors, the experimental tractor can sense obstacles in its path. It will stop, on its own, until the operator assesses the situation.
The tractor also stops immediately if it loses its GPS signal or position in the field, so there shouldn't be an out-of-control, runaway machine.
The tractor's tasks can be modified, in real time, with the remote operator's controls or automatic weather warnings. The machine could, according to Case IH, reduce the risks associated with human error as it performs tasks such as spraying insecticide.
Working day and night, the tractor could make full use of short periods of favorable weather.
"There might only be four or five days when planting conditions are exceptional. Then farmers have to start making compromises," Zemenchik said.
Case IH has planted soybeans with its autonomous tractor and is taking the machine on a world tour to display it at farm shows. The company says the driverless tractor won't be available in the marketplace for at least a few years.
"It's not a product launch, by any means. But it could certainly lead to one, or several, down the road," said Leo Bose, a Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager.
The company says other farm equipment could operate on the same technology, and there would probably be various levels of autonomous features.
Onboard sensors and computers could plot the most efficient paths through a field depending on the terrain, obstructions and other machines in use in the same field. The operator, from a distance, could choose a plan from a pre-programmed menu — a process that could be finished in less than a minute.
Some tractors and harvesting machines already have GPS that helps steer them through the fields, although an operator remains in the cab for safety reasons. The machines are loaded with other technology, too, including onboard computers that can calculate the yield-per-acre of a crop as it's being harvested.
Already, farmers are using aerial drones to capture crop data from their fields. In the future, a drone could send information, in real time, to a driverless tractor.
Automated tractors would be a big breakthrough, much like driverless cars or convoys of driverless military trucks. The Pentagon has a goal of having thousands of driverless military vehicles for use in combat zones and supply missions.
There also could be a trickle-down effect from the technology that benefits other, non-autonomous farm machines.
Case IH hasn't put a price on its driverless tractor but says the technology is becoming more affordable as the cost of things such as sensors drops dramatically.
CNH Industrial, the parent of farm equipment makers Case IH and New Holland, has worked with Autonomous Solutions Inc. of Utah in the development of driverless tractors.
"We have field trials going on with farmers who are early adopters, who have skilled labor challenges and are really pushing the envelope," said ASI Chief Executive Officer Mel Torrie.