Dreams come true: my ride-along in an autonomous tractor

Autonomous tractor

Photo credit: Joe Miller

“When will farmers be able to hit a button and deploy a fleet of autonomous tractors?”

My question took a John Deere engineer by surprise a little. As usual, I was jumping ahead a few years. I was about to climb into a massive full-size John Deere tractor, situated on a course far behind the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES 2019. In my head, I was picturing a farmer sipping a lemonade at watching cable news while the tractors in his field planted seeds or harvested corn, all without any intervention and all on their own.

Automated agriculture

We’re not quite there, but it was easy to see how it might work. I sat down on a jump seat next to the main driver in the big green machine. The operator showed me how manually driving a tractor is somewhat laborious. On the course, bright yellow lines created a curved pattern that ran for about 100 feet or so. I’ve never operated a tractor, but to stay within the lines, the operator had to look all around the tractor constantly. With one button press, he enabled autonomous mode.

Previously, his team had created an exact GPS map of the course. He said the tractor can be incredibly precise, down to a few inches. (He joked that fields have much tighter 'lanes' than any highway.) Since everything was already mapped out, the tractor could drive between a series of flags, remain centered perfectly on another section of the course, and tackle that curved pattern without either of us having to pay attention at all. In fact, he was mostly talking to me.

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Photo credit: Joe Miller

Farming is a perfect fit for autonomous vehicle tech. For one thing, it’s tedious. The engineer said farmers can spend 16 hours per day harvesting crops, mostly because they have to finish the job before the end of the season and avoid rainy periods. A farmfield is a wide open, highly predetermined area. A robot never complains about traveling over the same area over and over again, and never gets tired.

John Deere first started testing autonomous tractors about two decades ago, and the technology today is already in use. In fact, John Deere is one of only a handful of companies that uses a dedicated network for shared GPS satellites.

And, it’s not that far of a jump ahead when farmers could safely deploy these machines, especially if the farmfield is fenced in such a way that there are no dangers for anyone else. The conditions are incredibly predictable, much more so than on any highway.

Inside the cab, there are two screens for monitoring the tractor and the GPS map. You can see in real-time where the tractor is heading and the pattern it will use.

Time-saving

Although John Deere has used similar autonomous tech since about 2003, this is the first time the company has had a presence at CES, both on the show floor with a massive combine and in this backlot with a tractor.

Once the tech becomes more commonplace, having a fleet of tractors that plant and harvest at set periods makes sense – it would not only save time in operating the equipment, but would free the farmer up to do other tasks. I’ve experienced this myself on a smaller scale. I once tested a Husqvarna robotic mower for a summer, and grew to appreciate the fact that the mower maintained my lawn all summer without me having to lift a finger. 

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Photo credit: Joe Miller

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