Farmer's Ingenuity Creates Robot Tractor
By Chris Bennett, Farm Journal, Technology and Issues Editor
via AgWeb - May 18, 2017
Ghost in the machine. A John Deere 7930 tractor rumbles across a canola field, buggy in tow, and eases alongside a rolling combine to collect grain. Speed, distance, and timing are synced in a farming machinery version of a harvest mating dance. Except this is no ordinary two-step. The box is empty. There is no wheelman in the tractor cab.
What does it take to make a robot tractor? A batch of free software, some drone parts, a tablet computer, and one curious farmer to cobble the bits together. Forget theory and gimmicks, robots are already operating on farmland. Matt Reimer’s remote control 7930 is proof in the dirt. Working in his Killarney, Manitoba, shop with computer and hammer, Reimer, 30, has kicked open the door for autonomy in agriculture. He’s done it on a shoestring budget and left a paper trail for others to follow. Rise of the machines is rather the rise of the open-sourced farmer.
Going back almost a decade, Reimer had heard and read of ag machinery manufacturers working on autonomous vehicles, but wondered why a remotely managed tractor and grain cart weren’t available. “Think about the way we’ve always done it. Once the guy with the grain cart is beneath the combine auger, he sets the auto steer and tells the tractor to drive straight. It’s relatively simple. There wasn’t anything on the market and I thought, ‘Why not go for it myself?’”
In 2014, the third-generation Canadian producer opened a Christmas card with $200 tucked inside from his parents. Any other year, the money would have gone toward bills or groceries, but Reimer indulged in a bit of fun: He went online and shopped for a remote control airplane. He stumbled across Pixhawk, a versatile autopilot system, and his excitement jumped the track, straight to his farm. If Pixhawk ran an airplane, why not a tractor?
Pixhawk included a radio set for communication between automated vehicle and tablet. It also contained navigational algorithms. The operator simply tells a vehicle to move to particular GPS coordinates. No understanding of math or programming required. Pared down, Reimer’s challenge centered on hooking Pixhawk to a tractor. He spent the winter of 2014-2015 trying to make it work, but set it aside as the growing season approached.
“One of my friends asked if I’d given up on the stupid idea,” Reimer says. “That comment spurred me and I got it back out and had it finished a few months later.”
Essentially, Reimer connected Pixhawk with servo motors that physically moved and controlled the tractor cab. His driverless system was ready for the 2015 harvest. When Reimer was ready to unload grain, he pushed one button on a tablet to call the tractor and grain cart. Using GPS locations on a loop, Pixhawk made continuous calculations and the tractor followed the data trail. After unloading, Reimer hit the tablet button again and the tractor moved off at an idle and waited until the next dump.
Range of communication varies according to terrain. The system doesn’t technically require line of sight, but with no vision capabilities, the tractor arrives on a straight line once called. Reimer custom harvested in 2015 on a flat, mile-long field and had no problem with communications. All said, Reimer’s automation system cost $8,000 through a trial and error of discarded parts. However, he says the returns will mount over time.
“It can save me $5,000 per year for a tractor driver depending on...
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