What are Driverless Tractors and How Do They Work For You?

We want to share important information to teach you everything you need to know about driverless tractors.



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Let’s dive into the details.




What is a Driverless Tractor?


A driverless tractor is an autonomous farm vehicle.


It 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. The concept has significantly evolved recently. The tractors use GPS and other wireless technologies to farm land 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.



History


The idea of a driverless tractor has been around since as early as 1940, when Frank W. Andrew invented his own.


To guide his driverless tractor --- a barrel or fixed wheel would be put in the center of the field and around it would wind a cable attached to a steering arm on the front of the tractor.


In the 1950s, Ford developed a driverless tractor that they called "The Sniffer." It was never produced because it could not be operated without running wire underground through the field.


There were no major advances in driverless tractor technologies until 1994, when engineers at the Silsoe Research Institute developed the picture analysis system, which was used to guide a small driverless tractor designed for vegetable and root crops. This new tractor could also handle slight headland turns.


Current Technologies


Current driverless tractor technologies build on recent developments in unmanned vehicles and agricultural technology.


A tractor is defined as a powerful motor-driven vehicle with large, heavy treads, used for pulling farm machinery and other vehicles. Most commonly, the term is used to describe a farm vehicle that provides the power and traction to mechanize agricultural tasks. Precision agriculture was a major shift in technology that occurred in the 1980s.


The result was tractors that farmers drove with the aid of GPS devices and on-board computers. Precision agriculture focuses on maximizing returns while using minimum resources. With the aid of GPS devices and computers, farmers could use tractors more efficiently.


Next --- engineers worked on semi-automated tractors. These tractors had drivers, but the drivers only had to steer at the end of each row. Subsequently, the idea of a driverless tractor emerged in 2011 and 2012.


Driverless tractors were initially created to follow a main tractor (with a driver). This would allow one driver to do twice as much work using "follow-me" technology. The driverless tractor would follow a lead tractor between fields just like a hired hand would. Now, driverless tractor technologies have moved toward autonomy, or independent functioning.



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.


To be successful as a driverless unit --- 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 the tractors.


Here they are…

Full Autonomy


Most of the 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 on-board 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.


Hopefully, this brief article has helped you better understand driverless tractors.


If you need any further help or have any questions about driverless technology, tractors, implements, or anything else equipment-related, please contact your dealer, local mechanic, or call us at 602-734-9944. Please ask about our current new and used tractor supply.


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