WATERLOO, Iowa — If it looks like a tractor, sounds like a tractor and smells like a tractor, it’s a tractor, right?
But, what if it doesn’t look like a tractor and doesn’t even have a driver, yet performs all the duties of a tractor and more?
Then, it’s an autonomous tractor. And, it may be coming to a field near you.
Terry Anderson has a lifetime of inventions and technological breakthroughs behind him already.
Now, he’s preparing for what would be his coup de grace, a tractor that operates off computer guidance systems while the owner takes care of other business, perhaps in the cab of a nearby pickup.
“We feel autonomous agriculture is really here. The technology is here,” Anderson said.
He was among speakers during the recent Agricultural Machinery Conference in Waterloo.
A meeting hall was packed Tuesday with engineers curious about Anderson’s work and other automated farm machinery applications.
Anderson founded Autonomous Tractor Corp., a North Dakota company expecting to start making the first driverless tractors for farmers to start testing in their fields this year.
The tractors have already been tested for thousands of hours by the company.
The tractor is built with a modular design and has two diesel-electric motors that power it up to 800 horesepower.
It’s a boxy square design, with no cab but with weight-bearing tracks to minimize soil compression.
Anderson spoke of myriad challenges in getting the tractor to market.
First of all, they had to make it simple, both to operate and to maintain.
“You’re not going to get the farmer to take computer science classes. You’re not going to get him to program anything.
“But you can get him to show you what he wants,” Anderson said.
He said the maintenance will be at the module level, not down to individual parts, so repair time will be minimal.
The tractor will be guided by an area positioning system that allows a farmer to set the borders of a field by beacons or by leading the unit with an all-terrain vehicle, then hooking up the necessary implements and letting the tractor do the work.
He doesn’t trust GPS, saying its reliability can’t be counted on when solar flares, trees or buildings could interfere with the signal.
One issue could be getting approval to let the unit drive on roads from one field to another, as Department of Transportation officials could have nightmares of wayward robots colliding with cars.
It’s a problem Anderson believes is already fixed with the unit’s “follow-me” mode, but needs to be fail-safe and utterly reliable.
“We’re moving very carefully on this point,” Anderson said. “We could have put this thing in the field before now.”
Eric Cullen, an application engineer with Cummins Central Power and a committee member for the Agricultural Machinery Conference, says the autonomous tractor could become a reality, and he has confidence Anderson can pull it off.
“I think it’s the wave of the future,” Cullen said.
“Tractors already pretty much drive themselves. It’s a pretty small step to farming from your pickup.”