The idea that fully automated tractors could be roaming the countryside in a matter of years seems pretty far fetched.
But taking a peek into John Deere’s Technology Innovation Centre near Moline, Illinois, reveals that the concept is not that far from reality.
The latest commercial product to come out of the facility is Machine Sync, which gives combine drivers complete control over tractors and trailers during unloading. This takes vehicle automation a stage further than regular automatic steering as one vehicle has full control of the other.
All the tractor driver needs to do is approach the combine when requested, press a button when he is in the unloading zone and the combine will automatically bring the tractor into the correct position using GPS.
The tractor will then track the combine’s speed exactly and maintain a set distance from it so that the spout is always in the middle of the trailer. Via arrow keys on the control pad the combine driver can then nudge the tractor and trailer in any direction to ensure it is filled evenly and there is no spillage.
From the point that the combine takes control the tractor driver is merely a spectator, until he turns the wheel and pulls away from the manoeuvre. Deere says this reduces operator fatigue as they don’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder and constantly adjusting the tractor’s position.
Up to 10 machines can be set up on the network and it will work within a three-mile radius of the combine. The combine driver can also keep tabs on each of these machines when they are within the catchment and call each one to him independently.
Most 6R, 8R, 9030 and 9R tractors with IVT or PST transmissions are compatible with the system as well as the firm’s S-Series, T-Series and W-Series combines. Deere’s 7R tractors will also be compatible, but are currently going through testing.
Removing the driver from the follower machine is the next step and Deere has already developed a system where one driver can control multiple tractors.
In this leader-follower system a driver sits in a central tractor and controls two drone machines, which mirror his actions.
In testing the drone vehicles were carrying out the same duties as the master tractor but Engineers reckon they could control several more, says Jason Brantley, director for enterprise advanced marketing. “It is possible for one driver to control as many as six tractors.”
At the moment research has only been carried out on machines doing the same job, but they could be employed on different tasks, he says. “The biggest challenge, however, is for the operator to monitor what each implement is doing.”
Although this technology was well advanced, current legislation prevented it from becoming a commercially product, he said. “But John Deere is partnering with others in the industry to push through the legitimisation of this technology.”
It doesn't stop there either. Deere’s now has working prototypes of fully automated, driverless machines, including a Gator farm buggy that is capable of driving itself, completing specific tasks and navigating obstacles.
The buggy uses RTK guidance, a series of cameras, radars and laser sensors to map its surroundings and navigate around them. If left to its own devices it will drive on a pre-determined course, but it can also be radio controlled via a computer game hand set.
Deere says the technology has can be transferred to other vehicles with a CVT transmission and a similar system is being tested on a number of compact tractors carrying out orchard spraying duties.
In these tests the tractors have been successfully spraying orchards packed tightly with fruit trees, avoiding branches and dodging unforeseen obstacles.