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Self-driving: Old hat for tractors

December 28, 2015  - By

Google and the big automakers might get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to autonomous road vehicles, but John Deere has been making self-driving tractors for more than 15 years.

Among them is the 9RX tractor, which can steer itself, freeing the farmer to focus on business. The 9RX, introduced in August, features an articulated steering system and an optional Active Command Steering (ACS), which improves maneuverability in the field and line-holding ability at transport speeds.

Hands-free driving: Ag companies take the wheel. (Photo: John Deere).

Hands-free driving: Ag companies take the wheel. (Photo: John Deere).

Farmers don’t need to navigate other traffic, just make optimal use of fields. Before farmers began using GPS to plan routes, a few feet would get reworked in every row. With GPS-based auto-driving accurate down to the inch, missed spots and repetition are avoided, saving farmers time, fuel and money.

With a tractor the only moving object in a vast acreage, collisions are highly unlikely. Still, a driver still needs to be at the tractor’s wheel. Unlike consumer vehicles being developed for autonomous operation on public roads, the tractors don’t have external sensors on all sides to prevent collisions. A fully autonomous tractor, which doesn’t require a driver, probably won’t hit the market before 2025, according to John Deere.

Inside the cab, farmers can equip their tractors with a variety of modular systems that allow computers control over operations, starting with a basic satellite guidance system and a touchscreen interface. From there, an add-on lets the tractor make precise turns autonomously, and another uses radio base stations set up around fields to supplement navigational accuracy. Besides the high-tech features, cabs of the 9RX have luxury touches such as an integrated refrigerator and high-quality sound.

Laser Navigation

Other companies that offer auto-steering include Case IH and Autonomous Tractor Corporation.

Case IH offers guidance and steering for use on tractors, such as its Magnum 340 Tractor. (Photo: Case IH)

Case IH offers guidance and steering for use on tractors, such as its Magnum 340 Tractor. (Photo: Case IH)

Case IH provides steering and guidance tools for tractors, combines and sprayers. Its AFS AccuGuide auto guidance enables repeatable accuracy down to sub-inch levels. AFS RowGuide works with AFS AccuGuide to provide accurate, hands-off steering for corn harvests. Two mechanical touch sensors mounted on the corn-head dividers sense row position and provide guidance input in concert with GPS.

Autonomous Tractor bills itself as a non-GPS system without dead spots or signal interference. Instead, it uses a proprietary laser-radio navigation system (LRNS) for sub-inch positioning data, along with its own FieldSmart software that allows farmers to “train” the tractor without programming.

Sonar systems provide full perimeter safety, and pan-tilt cameras communicate via cellular to allow the farmer to monitor progress and remotely resolve issues.

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