Driverless tractors may be the ultimate grain grower fantasy and a new research investment by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) shows they are already a global reality.
The research project (USQ00022) led by the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has investigated international developments in autonomous tractors and found technology that forms the basis on driverless machinery is well advanced.
USQ National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture (NCEA) director professor Craig Baillie said while it may be some time before growers were controlling their machinery from outside the paddock, autonomous tractor base technology like GPS auto steer, machine optimization and sensors for process monitoring were already in use on-farm.
Speaking at recent GRDC Grains Research Updates across Queensland and northern New South Wales, Prof Baillie said despite many technologies still requiring more testing before they were ‘paddock ready,’ there were already automated tractors operating under commercial farming conditions.
“The development of autonomous and intelligent technology is of considerable interest to growers and the agricultural industry, because it provides a mechanism to improve the precision of crop management,” Prof Baillie said.
“In other words the right machinery can ensure the right management strategy is implemented in the right place, at the right time, which will allow growers to lever and enhance developments in cropping systems and agronomy.”
He said Australia had already proved an effective testing ground for major tractor companies to refine technology ahead of commercialization.
“This has allowed Australia to become ‘relatively advanced’ in comparison to North America and Europe in the practical application of precision agriculture technologies,” Prof Baillie said.
“There is definitely an opportunity for more early releases of autonomous tractors in Australia if we engage with leading tractor manufacturers to incubate technology before it is released worldwide.”
He said all six major international tractor manufacturers (John Deere, CNH, AGCO, CLAAS, SAME Deutz-Fahr and Kubota) had developed key technologies that provided a ‘pathway to autonomy’.
These features had been designed to improve on ‘human operations’ and were already commercially available to Australian growers. They include: hands free tractor/implement guidance; variable rate control; machine optimization via varying transmissions; auto-turn and auto-control functions; sensing and perception; telematics and infield communications for remote control of tractor operations.
Prof Baillie said the next step was to assess grower interest and ultimately uptake of technology.
In a survey conducted as part of the presentation at the GRDC update at Jondaryan on Queensland’s Darling Downs 65 per cent of growers in the audience would use an autonomous tractor on their farm.
When asked the minimal level of autonomous tractor system they would adopt 47 per cent of growers said they would be comfortable with no driver at all, while 39 per cent admitted they would prefer a person in the cab.
As for adopting new technology 95 per cent of growers said they already utilized machine guidance technology. But when it came to auto end turns and machine implement control 71 per cent said they did not use the technology.
“These figures reflect the responses we have had from wider research into grower interest and potential use of automated technology,” Prof Baillie said.
“There are still issues around risks for growers, even when it comes to those technology features that are already available.
“People say they want to go the ‘fully monty’ in terms of driverless tractors, but they are not using the technology they have now. So as with any new technology there will be early adopters and that will be what drives development in this area.”