Schuitemaker of the Netherlands developed a robotic feed wagon, and John Deere’s ITEC Pro is one step away from working the fields without you in the cab

If a robot tractor can work 24/7, you can get by with much smaller seeders.

Smaller machines also mean less soil compaction. “It could text message you on your Blackberry when it needs to be refilled,” says Guy Lafond.

The use of robots in industry is now accepted as normal. Factories use them pretty extensively, and although they usually perform just a limited number of functions, they have taken over a lot of jobs done by humans. That has been the trend in industry, but not so much on North American farms. However, imagine the benefits of a robot that could sit in a tractor’s seat — figuratively speaking — all day and all night seeding for you.

That might conjure up absurd images of the famous robot from Lost in Space, the one that waved his arms saying “Warning, Danger Will Robinson,” driving your tractor up and down the field. Is there a real chance of seeing a tractor working on its own anytime soon?

So far there has been a lot of research done on tractor automation, some going back to the 1960s, but no one has yet to put one in dealers’ showrooms. All that may be changing, though.

In November, as had been widely anticipated by the European farm media, the first prototype farm robot made an appearance at the 2008 EuroTier, a farm exhibition held in Hannover, Germany. Dutch manufacturer Schuitemaker introduced a fully robotic feed wagon, the Innovado. It is a self-propelled wagon that can haul silage from a pit to livestock feeding bunks, loading and unloading on its own.

Imagine a feedlot populated only by cattle and automated feed wagons as a pen checker sits in a control room looking at camera monitors! That would certainly go a long way to alleviating the farm labour shortage.

John Deere’s ITEC Pro

OK, so a robot can run back and forth between a few fixed points and unload itself, nothing new there. That is already happening in factories, but what about seeding or swathing in the field?

Well as it turns out, that is just more of the same. Using GPS mapping and auto-steer technology, tractors can do that now, but as yet not on their own. John Deere is the closest of any manufacturer to having a fully automated system on the market. They call their system the ITEC Pro, which stands for Intelligent Total Equipment Control. “[It] is the next step toward complete tractor automation,” claims their advertising.

This system guides the tractor accurately up and down rows then lifts the implement out of the ground, turns it around and heads it back the other way. Practically all the driver has to do is listen to the radio — well, maybe not quite that little. But as Barry Nelson, Deere’s spokesman points out, “This is not robotic control.” An attentive operator is still needed to ensure everything continues working as it should.

“The operator has to set up the system,” says Laura Robson, marketing representative for Deere’s ITEC Pro. The operator can program a field’s boundaries into the system through a desk-top computer from a previous GPS mapping pass or drive the tractor around the field edges while the system maps it. Once the tractor and implement dimensions are programmed in and the field boundaries are set, the machine is started on an initial A-B line and ITEC Pro takes over. When the tractor nears the headlands, a display message tells the driver it is preparing to turn and the driver must push a button to authorize the manoeuvre.

Once authorized, the system lifts the implement out of the ground, adjusts the tractor speed, turns it, heads it back on a parallel track and lowers the implement again. “It helps put a less-experienced operator into the cab,” says Robson. And for those producers who have no choice but to hire less-experienced people, “It helps some owners put their fears to rest,” adds Robson about the potential for damaging expensive machinery through inexperience.

Deere initially launched ITEC Pro in January of 2008. It’s now available for all 8030 and 9030-series tractors. So far, no other manufacturer offers this level of automation for field applications.

Deere’s official position is that complete automation is not yet a viable option for field work. Nelson points to the myriad things that can go wrong with complex implements. “Discs can plug up,” he says, giving one example. Unexpected obstructions sometimes require stopping the tractor. And of course breakdowns can happen at any time. Without an operator’s watchful eye, those things could be trouble in a pilotless machine. But are these insurmountable problems?

Not according to Guy Lafond, a research scientist with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture. “All the necessary components for robotics exist already,” he says. It is just a matter of putting it all together in a commercially viable machine. That isn’t without its challenges, but those challenges may represent an opportunity for the Canadian prairies, suggests Lafond. He points to the emergence of Saskatchewan-based companies that brought no-till, air-seeder technology to the forefront in agriculture. He thinks robotic control could be the next big opportunity for Saskatchewan entrepreneurs to shine yet again. “There are tremendous opportunities for robotic applications in the area of field scouting. I envision robots doing measurements in the field and relaying the information to the farm manager,” says Lafond.

The systems currently in use in aviation could the inspiration for field robotics. Autopilot and instrument landing systems can control an aircraft through complex manoeuvres that make pulling an air seeder across a field seem simple in comparison. But simple or not, viable robotic field systems offer some tantalizing opportunities.

If a robot tractor can work 24/7, you can get by with much smaller seeders, says Lafond. Smaller machines also mean less soil compaction. “It could text message you on your Blackberry when it needs to be refilled,” he says. And systems like forward-looking radar could sweep the area ahead for unmapped obstructions and stop the machine if necessary.

But if you’re one of those guys who lives for the opportunity to spend a day in the tractor seat, all of this talk may not seem too appealing. Maybe you’d prefer a robot more along the lines of the mechanical maid that worked for the cartoon Jetson family. Then it could have sandwiches made and the coffee steaming hot when you came home for lunch. Either way, farm productivity seems destined to benefit from robotics, sooner or later.

Scott Garvey specializes in writing about tractors and farm machinery technology for publications in Canada and Great Britain. He’s also a former affiliate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He farms near Moosomin, Sask.

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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