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Driverless Tractors Explained

A driverless tractor is an autonomous farm vehicle that delivers a high tractive effort (or torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of tillage and other agricultural tasks. It is considered driverless because it operates without the presence of a human inside the tractor itself. Like other unmanned ground vehicles, they are programmed to independently observe their position, decide speed, and avoid obstacles such as people, animals, or objects in the field while performing their task. The various driverless tractors are split into full autonomous technology and supervised autonomy. The idea of the driverless tractor appears as early as 1940, but the concept has significantly evolved in the last few years. The tractors use GPS and other wireless technologies to farmland without requiring a driver. They operate simply with the aid of a supervisor monitoring the progress at a control station or with a manned tractor in lead.

Technology

The driverless tractor is part of a move to increase automation in farming. Other such autonomous technologies currently utilized in farming include automatic milking and automatic strawberry pickers. Developing such a technology is difficult. In order for it to be successful, the tractor must be able to follow deterministic tasks (a task that is defined before it starts, such as a path to follow on a field), have reactive behavior (the ability to react to an unknown situation such as an obstacle in the way), and have reflexive responses (making a decision without hesitation or time-consuming calculations such as changing the steering angle if necessary). Ultimately, the tractor should imitate a human in its ability to observe spatial position and make decisions such as speed.

How the Technology Works

The technology for the driverless tractor has been evolving since its beginnings in the 1940s. There are now several different approaches to building and programming tractors.

Full Autonomy

Currently, the majority of fully autonomous tractors navigate using lasers that bounce signals off several mobile transponders located around the field. These lasers are accompanied with 150 MHz radios to deal with line-of-sight issues. Instead of drivers, the tractors have controllers. Controllers are people that supervise the tractors without being inside them. These controllers can supervise multiple tractors on multiple fields from one location.


Another fully autonomous tractor technology involves using the native electrical (or CAN bus) system of the tractor or farm equipment to send commands. Using GPS positioning and radio feedback, automation software manages the vehicle's path and controls farming implements. A retrofit radio receiver and onboard computer are generally used to receive commands from the remote command station and translate it into vehicle commands such as steering, acceleration, braking, transmission, and implement control. Sensor technologies such as lidar improve safety by detecting and reacting to unforeseen obstacles.

Supervised Autonomy

Tractors that function with supervised autonomy (automated technology, but with a supervising operator present) use vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology and communication. There is a wireless connection between the two tractors to exchange and share data. The leading tractor (with an operator) determines speed and direction which is then transmitted to the driverless tractor to imitate.

Safety

The driverless tractor is considered controversial in terms of safety and public acceptance. A tractor operating without a driver makes some people nervous. Creating technology that stays safe in all scenarios where failure could possibly occur takes a lot of programming and time. In terms of motion detection, the tractors have sensors to stop them if they detect objects in their path such as people, animals, vehicles or other large objects.

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