13 March 1998

Japan develops driverless

By Michael Fitzpatrick

A JAPANESE research institute has produced a GPS guided unmanned tractor – a project driven by the countrys pressing need to further mechanise its farming industry which suffers from a chronic labour shortage.

The National Agriculture Research Centre in Tsukuba, near Tokyo, has now developed a tractor which uses satellite navigation to help it manoeuvre accurately and carry out basic farm chores without an operator.

Working with the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the institute claims the driverless machine can effectively carry out tilling, seeding, fertilising and herbicide operations more efficiently than a manned tractor. How, say, a sprayer is refilled is not stated.

Using a standard 75hp tractor equipped with a fibre optic gyroscope and a GPS similar to those used in car and naval navigation systems, the machine is said to be able to travel at 1.5m/sec (4mph approx) without straying more than 10cm (4in) off its programmed course.

Low-cost GPS is now available for farming to measure the position and speed of vehicles, points out the centre. Steering, throttle and other controls are governed by an onboard computer.

The tractor, which cost 30 million yen (£150,000) to develop, receives relevant data from the computer and then follows its defined route, changing direction using longitudinal and latitudinal readings from the GPS.

During tests runs, experimenting with automatic tillage and fertilising, the centre says it has achieved good results and that the only question now is one of ensuring safe operation.

"I think it is correct to say that a manned tractor would find it difficult to run as accurately as our automated GPS tractors," comments the institutes Inoue Keiich. "We hope the tractor will help decrease heavy labour work on the farm, improve the accuracy of farm operations and perhaps even put some joy back into agriculture." &#42

A labour shortage in Japan has prompted the development of a GPS guided unmanned tractor. Steering and throttle are computer controlled.