A driverless tractor is a form of autonomous technology. It is considered driverless because it operates without the presence
of a human inside the tractor itself. Like other unmanned ground vehicles, they are programmed to independently observe their position, decide speed and avoid obstacles such as people, animals or objects in the field, while performing their task.
The various driverless tractors are split into full autonomous technology and supervised autonomy. The idea of the driverless tractor appears as early as 1940, but has really come to fruition in the last few years. The tractors use GPS and other wireless technologies to farm land without the need of a driver. They operate simply with the aid of a supervisor monitoring the progress at a control station or with a manned tractor in lead. Current leading manufacturers are John Deere, Autonomous Tractor Corporation, Fendt and Case IH.
The idea of a driverless tractor has been around since as early as 1940, when Frank W. Andrew invented his own. To guide
his driverless tractor, a barrel or fixed wheel would be put in the center of the field and around it would wind a cable attached to a steering arm on the front of the tractor. In the 1950s Ford developed a driverless tractor that they called “The Sniffer” but it was never produced because it could not be operated without running wire underground through the field. There were no major advances in driverless tractor technologies until 1994 when engineers at the Silsoh Research Institute developed the picture analysis system, which was used to guide a small driverless tractor designed for vegetable and root crops. This new tractor could even handle slight headland turns.
Current driverless tractor technologies build on recent developments in unmanned vehicles and agricultural technology. A tractor is defined as a powerful motor-driven vehicle with large, heavy treads, used for pulling farm machinery and other vehicles. Most commonly, the term is used to describe a farm vehicle that provides the power and traction to mechanize agricultural tasks. Precision agriculture was a major shift in technology that occurred in the 1980s. The result was tractors that farmers drove with the aid of GPS devices and on-board computers. Precision agriculture focuses on maximizing returns while using minimum resources. With the aid of GPS devices and computers, farmers could use tractors more efficiently.
Next, engineers worked on semi-automated tractors. These tractors had drivers, but the drivers only had to steer at the end of each row. Subsequently, the idea of a driverless tractor emerged in 2011 and 2012.
Driverless tractors were initially created to follow a main tractor (with a driver). This would allow one driver to do twice as much work using what is called “follow-me” technology. The driverless tractor would follow a lead tractor between fields just like a hired hand would. But now driverless tractor technologies have moved toward autonomy, or independent functioning.
Image credits: (top left) By ASIrobots – Picture taken on a site visit to the Texas vineyard. Previously published: None, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44429741
(top right) By Feddacheenee – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32735021
(middle left) Courtesy of Autonomous Tractor Corporation: Autonomous Tractor Corporation’s “The Free Spirit”
(bottom right) Fendt-700-Vario. Image courtesy of Fendt Tractors.
(bottom left) By Lifetec18, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10953240