Some people just can’t wait for self-driving cars. Luckily, today it’s easy for tinkerers to tackle this kind of high-technology project on their own — and when a vehicle is only going to operate on private land, there’s no need to wait for Silicon Valley (nor traffic laws) to catch up.
Matt Reimer, a Canadian farmer who grows canola and wheat on a 2,500-acre farm in Manitoba, spent much of the last harvest season perfecting an autonomous, GPS-guided tractor using an open-source control system of his own design.
The development of the driverless tractor, from early testing to full operation, is chronicled at Riemer’sYoutube account. A cell phone video taken in August shows the tractor, with a grain cart in tow, pulling alongside Reimer’s massive crop-harvesting combine as it lumbers across a wheat field. The tractor keeps pace while grain is offloaded into the cart through a chute, then turns away to park itself — and the whole time, the cab is clearly empty.
“We’ve had auto-steer for years, which is basically the ability for our tractors to drive straight up and down the field on their own” with a human only steering through turns, Reimer said during a recent interview with CBC Radio’s Spark. “So it didn’t seem like a big stretch to me that if we could already control the wheels of our tractors using a GPS signal, that the tractor could drive itself in the field and come alongside the combine without anybody in it.”
Reimer said he used to rely on a farmhand who would sit around waiting to make those occasional trips. Now he can simply summon the tractor whenever the combine’s hopper gets full, freeing his employees to do other work that keeps the farm running more efficiently.
The whole project is open-source, both hardware and software. Reimer cannibalized the control module of an open-source quadcopter drone, which handles all the pathfinding without any modifications to its software. Then he wrote a bit of custom software, also based on open-source code, so that the combine operator can issue basic commands. He’s also put work into safety features that will stop the tractor if it loses its connection to the controlling device in the combine, or if an object triggers a sensor bar mounted on the front bumper.
Between mistakes and preparing a complete backup system for redundancy, Reimer spent about CA$8,000 on the project — far less than the price tag of a new tractor, which can easily run several hundred thousand dollars. And he did it without much specialized knowledge, beyond the programming skills he learned in an online MIT course. Reimer said he’s happy to share details with any farmer who wants to try building their own tractor drone.
See the self-driving tractor in action in the video below, and head over to Spark to hear the full story.