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Imagine getting a full night's sleep during planting season while an unmanned tractor works the land. That scenario is no longer a dream as driverless technology created by an Idaho company is now a reality.

David Farb, a seed potator farmer, inventor and owner of Farb Guidance Systems of Post Falls, ID., says his unmanned farm equipment is already working fields across the U.S. and Canada.

Farb introduced the world's first fully driverless farm equipment at Wisconsin Technology Days held in Wood County earlier this month. While both John Deere and Case IH have unveiled autonomous concept tractors that have yet to hit the market, Farb's company has become the world leader in unmanned agricultural equipment.

"There are a lot of people that have prototype and concept machines, but very few of them have been able to take them and put them into practice," David Farb said. "Our machines can literally go to work in a farmer's field today, performing any tillage, planting, spraying or fertilizer operations, right up to the point of harvest."

Using a Caterpillar skid steer platform, the 100 hp. machine is driven completely with a computerized guidance system that is operated from the company's central site in the Pacific Northwest and can be monitored through a smart phone from anywhere in the world. 

"These machines can be operated anywhere that has an internet connection and a GPS satellite signal, which is almost anywhere," Farb said.

Farb, who was was raised in Northern Illinois on his family’s grain farm, says his customers are using the driverless machines to work fields ranging from thousands of acres to small plots of land.

"We've been working with U.S. Sugar which runs 400,000 acres and many of their plots are only 5 acres in size," he said. "This technology has worked very well in that environment, and that same machine has been out in 2,000 acre fields."

While Farb's machines have been operating in fields from the west to the east coast, the Farm Technology Days show was the first time the technology has been introduced in Wisconsin.

"We kind of stayed away from the Midwest initially, as we wanted to keep the technology a little quiet so we could get it proven and running cleanly. But today we're ready," he said.

In addition to selling the vehicles, Farb says the company is providing a contract service to farmers, with no equipment purchase.

"Regardless of how many machines we would send out, the farmer simply pays a per acre fee which is comparable in cost to what they would pay for the going custom farming rates in their area," Farb said. "Technology should prove to be more cost effective over time, and hopefully we can expect to see those custom farming rates drop."

To get started, Farb says farmers would provide the company with the number of acres to be tilled, sprayed, planted or fertilized and the absolute completion date. Fields would then be inspected with the owner prior to any work being performed.

"All known obstacles would be entered into the prescription that directs the machine where to go and what to do," Farb explained. "Uknown obstacles like wildlife or people are detected by the varying types of sensors on the machine. As for wet holes, the machine also knows the current and past weather and those areas can be predicted and avoided."

The number of units sent to the area would depend on the size of the job and completion date. 

"If the job needs to be completed within a two-week window and it rains the first 10 days, then we would probably show up with double or triple the amount of machines to assure that the work got done in that given time period," Farb said. "The fee doesn't change. This is a huge advantage for the farmer who now has truly fixed costs and assurance of when his crops are going to be in or whatever operation is performed."

Although the Caterpillar skid steer platform is roughly half the size of a modern, conventional tractor, Farb says the compact body allows for greater mobility while operating and transporting, with the tracks allowing for greater flotation and less soil compaction.

"It was a very easy machine to make driverless. Had I went to a conventional tractor platform, I would have had to deal with the steering system, the transmission system, a forward and reserve system, braking and clutching system," Farb pointed out. "With this system, because its a hydrostatic drive I control speed, distance, direction and steering all through a single input. It was a more cost effective vehicle."

Farb says that once driverless technology is implemented on a machine, it makes little sense to have a large machine.

"Here you have a 600 hp tractor pulling a 24-row planter and it breaks down. Now you have 24 rows down. In the same case, we would probably be running six machines pulling 4-6 row planters. If one machine goes down, you still have the other five still going," he said.

Those who missed seeing Farb's equipment at Farm Technology Days will have another chance to see it in action during the 2018 Agronomy/Soils Field Day on Aug. 22 at Arlington Research Station in Arlington, WI. The day will highlight University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension research on emerging technologies and relevant crop production issues.

The equipment rodeo will feature agriculture technology in planting, UAV remote sensing and autonomous machines.

"Give us 5 or 10 acres or a whole field on your farm and let us bring the equipment in there and watch it work in your fields for just the normal custom farming rates per acre. We're convinced you'll be happy," Farb said.

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