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How to build a robotic tractor

A Manitoba farmer offers help to others who want to create an autonomous machine

This past year Manitoba farmer Matthew Reimer announced he had successfully built his own robotic tractor to pull a grain cart at harvest time. Fully autonomous farm equipment is something the big equipment brands haven’t yet offered customers. But, the reality is they could. Only one small thing is holding them back: the risk of civil liability if something should go wrong.

So for now, those who want their own robotic high-horsepower tractors will have to follow Reimer’s lead and create it themselves. In fact, it might be that early adoption and wide-spread use of field-working robotics on farms will have to begin at the grassroots level. So, Reimer has started his own small company, Reimer Robotics, to help other farmers develop and install their own robotic systems, charging $35,000 for the labour-intensive process of converting a tractor to robotic control.

“I have started a company off of this that offers a service to install,” he told an audience during a presentation at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon in January. “But if you want to build it yourself, I’m way more excited about that. If one person builds their own, I’m going to be thrilled.”

And that may be easier than you think. To help, Reimer is willing to share his experience and allow people to build off his success.

In fact Reimer’s success shows that with the current offering of open-source programming, a little self-directed online learning and the variety of components available on the market, producers could design and implement their own on-farm robotic systems, which is exactly how he did it.

“My entire project is open source,” he said. “That’s how it started and that’s how it’s going to continue.”

Open source means the technology is shared by its creators with anyone who wants to use it.

“Open source, this is what farmers know a lot about,” Reimer said. “We just call it being a good neighbour.”

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The individual hardware components required to build an autonomous system are widely available and relatively inexpensive. The Pixhawk controller, available online for about U.S.$200, developed for remote control drones forms the basis of Reimer’s system. The total cost of components built into Reimer’s system is only about $5,000.

“This is what got me started,” he said, showing an image of it to the audience. “It’s called a Pixhawk and it’s the autopilot out of an RC drone. I stumbled across this thing, and I thought for a long time I should be able to make a tractor drive itself. If I can put this in my tractor, It maybe solves enough problems that I can figure out the rest. So that’s how I started.”

But building the system required learning a few things about software programming. Reimer says a basic, free online course taught him to write enough of his own code to make the system work.

“I decided I was going to take an online course. My brother went to MIT and he told me all their lectures and assignments were online for free (at ocw.mit.edu). Sure enough, I found an introductory course in the programming language I thought was going to be helpful. It was like a self-study thing. I learned what I needed to learn.”

Although Reimer said getting the system to do what he wanted actually didn’t take much software code writing. “The total lines (of code) I’ve written: 600,” he explained.

Currently, Reimer’s system has three fail-safe systems to stop the tractor in the event of a systems failure. If the radio in the tractor that connects it to the combine loses contact, the tractor immediately stops. There is a stop button on his controller app, and everyone working in the same field with the robot tractor carries a key fob transmitter that can immediately stop it.

But even though his goal is to create machinery that can work without a driver, he believes having a human in the field to keep an eye on things remains a critical component, calling the concept “supervised autonomy”.

Reimer said he also expects to expand the kind of work his robotic tractor can do, focusing next on pulling a landroller over seeded soybean fields.

“Start with what you can manage and keep building from there,” he said.

For a video look at Reimer’s system go to grainews.ca.

About the author

Machinery Editor

Scott Garvey is the machinery editor for Grainews.

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