I think we can all agree that farmers are some of the hardest working people in Australia. There’s always stuff to do and they’re always on call. Weekends, public holidays; none of that means much when you have a property to run. Agriculture really is a full-time business, so any innovation that offers to save farmer’s time is big news in the bush.
Traditionally farmers have spent a massive amount of time sitting on tractors. Ploughing, sowing, spraying and harvesting all involve long shifts behind the wheel and those hours either take farmers away from other work that needs their attention or add up to big salary bills.
But what if tractors could drive themselves? What if farmers could use their computer to set up a task like ploughing a field and click ‘go’, and the tractor headed off and did the work by itself?
It’s not science fiction anymore.
Driverless tractors are already being tested on Australian farms, and they’re set to change the landscape in more ways than one.
The concept of an automated tractor has actually been around for quite a while. In the 1980’s machinery manufacturers started experimenting with ways to maximise the efficiency of tractors using electronics. The advent of GPS technology was the catalyst for massively increased precision for tractor drivers, but until very recently a tractor still needed a human operator behind the wheel to keep it running and make sure it didn’t stray from its pre-programmed path.
Around five years ago the first driverless tractors made their appearance, but they were not truly autonomous. They were able to follow another tractor, effectively halving the time taken to complete a task, but the lead vehicle still required a human operator.
In recent years the mining industry has pioneered the use of fully autonomous vehicles with great success and the farming industry looks set to follow suit. 2015 saw the first Australian field tests of robotic tractor technology on farms. The new generation of driverless vehicles are highly independent and can be given complex commands to carry out without human intervention.
R&D in the bush
In 2015 Japan’s Hokkaido University launched an ambitious research and development project. Working closely with the technology company Hitachi the Hokkaido research group prototyped an autonomous control system for tractors on rice farms.
The system is designed to be retrofitted into standard tractors and is installed in such a way that a driver can take over the controls if necessary.
In fully autonomous mode the Hokkaido tractor control system coordinates with GPS satellites, drones and a terrestrial base station. The multi-faceted location system allows the tractors to operate with an extremely high level of precision. They can be programmed to execute complex tasks through a user-friendly interface that runs on a tablet or computer. As well as the GPS auto-navigation technology, the prototypes are fitted with an array of sensors that can detect obstacles like animals and people in the path of the vehicles, allowing them to operate safely without supervision.
The autonomous tractors can plough, sow crops and spray weeds, all by remote control. During tests carried out at Hokkaido University, the researchers successfully programmed a group of four tractors to work in unison, coordinating their movements automatically in real time.
The Hokkaido University tractor team worked closely with agricultural researchers and farmers in Australia to test their prototype in Australian conditions. In 2015 the Australian Co-operative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI) commenced a series of field tests on rice crops in the Riverina and sugar cane farms near Mackay, QLD.
In a 2015 interview with the ABC, Phil Collier of the CRCSI spoke enthusiastically about the potential benefits of tractor automation for Australian farmers;
“In the tests we did last year with the rice growers; they were able to not only get the accuracy up, but it allows them to grow other crops in between the rows of rice so they’ve been getting additional crop output, making the land more efficient. The satellites in the sky determine the position of the tractor in a global frame of reference,” Collier said. “The additional information that comes from the satellites brings the precision down from several metres to two centimetres. The whole objective is to bring down the precision to a reliable and consistent level to allow that tractor to navigate its way down the rows of crops so things aren’t getting run over. From mining to the automated guidance of cars, anything where there’s a level of machine automation required that’s outside, then this technology has got the ability to solve that problem.”
Phil Collier’s statements in 2015 were certainly prophetic. Since that time driverless tractor technology and autonomous vehicle development more broadly, has moved forward at a rapid pace. Australian miner Rio Tinto has invested massively in vehicle automation in recent years and the road transport industry looks set to follow suit.
So just how close are we to seeing robot tractors at work on Australian farms?
The answer may be determined more by government regulation than anything else because the first commercial prototypes are already here.
Coming Soon to a Paddock Near You…
At last year’s Farm Progress Show in Iowa, USA, there was little doubt about what the starring attraction was. Case IH unveiled their prototype autonomous tractor at the expo and the futuristic machine drew big crowds to it’s demonstrations.
This prototype tractor’s design is revolutionary because of what it doesn’t have; there is no cabin or driver’s seat. The tractor’s on-board controls are monitored and programmed remotely from a computer or mobile phone. Most new tractors now include some level of GPS assisted navigation, but the new Case concept vehicle operates completely autonomously. Once programmed to execute a task it is capable of driving itself from the shed to the field, engage with implements, plough, sow and harvest completely independently. Onboard monitoring technology making use of radar and video analysis constantly scans the tractor’s surroundings keeping it clear of obstacles and ensuring the safety of people working nearby.
With skilled labour shortages presenting a growing problem for farmers some of the benefits of a driverless tractor are clearly apparent. Case IH assert that the cutting edge technology in their new prototype is so advanced that the vehicle can operate around the clock with minimal supervision; a massive productivity advantage.
Speaking to media at the Farm Progress Show, Case IH marketing manager Rob Zemenchik said; “skilled labour is now limitless throughout the day. This technology allows us to hit tight time windows for planting, harvesting or spraying.”
Case has not put a price tag on their prototype driverless tractor but it is speculated that it could cost upwards of half a million dollars. That’s a big investment for any farmer but industry experts foresee massive productivity and efficiency benefits coming from this kind of technology, that will justify the upfront expenditure.
As with other driverless vehicle prototypes, government regulation is perceived to be one of the major remaining hurdles manufacturers like Case must clear before their autonomous machines can be sold in the Australian market. It’s not clear at this time when the Case IH concept tractor will become available, but if the success of driverless vehicles in the mining industry is anything to go by we will be seeing robot tractors chugging around in the bush sooner rather than later.