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While the country bumpkin farmer stereotype might suggest otherwise, driving a tractor is difficult, requiring precision skills. Now Flemish engineers have announced a new self-driving tractor whose precision rivals that of a human driver. This could mean drastically lower operating costs for farmers, and a step towards automated agriculture.

The tractor, built by Flanders’ Mechatronics Technology Centre (FMTC) and the Mechatronics, Biostatistics and Sensors (MeBioS) division of K.U. Leuven’s Biosystems Department can automatically adjust its speed and turning radius during its preprogrammed route over a field.

Previous driving systems required manual calibration for hard and soft terrain settings. The new tractor anticipates wheel slippage based on the observed terrain and adjusts its speed and turning rate to compensate. The tractor’s driving system “allows for precision down to the centimetre.”

The automated tractor could potentially drive down high tractor operator costs. “The job of an operator is really quite complex: he observes the tractor’s current position, makes a judgement based on terrain conditions and the route to be followed, and, based on all this, decides the speed and orientation of the tractor,” says Erik Hostens, project engineer of FMTC. An automated system that could complete this task would fulfill the need for a highly trained operator, without the continuous high cost.

FMTC and MeBioS will unveil their robot tractor on September 24 and 25 at the Annual International Agriculture and Horticulture Days of Mechanisation, in Oudennarde, Belgium.

Meanwhile, today’s Wall Street Journal covers an American partnership between Kinze Manufacturing and Jaybridge Robotics that has also produced a self-driving tractor. The Kinze Autonomous Grain Cart system is designed to work in tandem with a human-operated harvester combine, driving alongside the combine and collecting harvested grain, with a surprisingly sprightly, even playful, gait [see below]. When the grain cart is full, the autonomous tractor hauls the crop to storage, and then returns to find the combine. Kinze and Jaybridge have also developed an autonomous planting system.

[Science Daily, WSJ]

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