This fall during harvest, Indiana's Kyler Laird will be able to look over from the seat of his combine and watch the tractor with a grain cart pull along beside him to take another load. The difference is that the cab of that tractor will be empty -- Laird will be driving the grain cart rig remotely from inside the combine.
"This has kind of been inside my head since I was in middle school," said Laird, a computer science major at Purdue University and self-professed tech nerd. "Now, I'm always thinking about how can I reduce machinery costs and not increase labor costs."
Even though he farms in Indiana, Laird remains on the staff at the University of California Merced as a systems analyst, doing work on servers for instructional labs in the school of engineering.
Laird's father passed away in 2010, and he came home to help farm with his father's employee. "After a couple of years, I thought, 'I have to do this my way,'" Laird said, noting that for a handful of years after that, he operated without automation. Then, in 2015, he retooled a John Deere lawn tractor he bought at auction, replacing the engine, installing new hydraulic and electrical systems, and rigging it for remote control.
Laird is hardly alone doing this work. John Deere introduced and tested a driverless tractor two decades ago. In 2011, Kinze Manufacturing modified a Deere 8430 to autonomously pull a grain cart alongside a combine. Deere introduced a similar prototype system the following year.
And, in 2016, Case IH and New Holland introduced their own autonomous concept tractors. The machines came with or without cabs, and looked downright aerodynamic -- something that's possible when you don't need a cab that has to accommodate humans.
"Imagine how much less power a tractor might need if it doesn't have to drag around an air-conditioned cab with cushy front suspension systems," Laird said.
It only seems a matter of time for all of this, given that driverless cars are already on the road in experimental use. Many of the same things used for them -- backup sensors, cameras -- have already been applied to farm machinery.
A 2016 report by the investment bank, Goldman Sachs, predicted that farm technologies could become a $240-billion market opportunity for ag machinery companies. Tens of billions of dollars could be spent on advanced technology for major uses such as precision fertilizer, planting, spraying and irrigation, the report predicts.
Laird's early lawn tractor experience led to drilling 50 acres of beans in 2016 using a Massey Ferguson 2745 tractor he automated. "The Massey was really simple," he said. "I put a clutch override linear actuator in it, spent months trying to design it so I could clutch it, and I can steer it, and that's all I needed."
WORK IN PROGRESS
In 2017, Laird planted 500-plus acres of corn using an automated John Deere 6330 with a John Deere 7300 planter. This planting was done remotely, not autonomously -- Laird still has to be at the field in his pickup monitoring the machinery. On one of his YouTube videos, Laird freely talked about the glitches -- difficulties working out fertilizer flow, getting enough downforce for a particular field.
"The big problem yesterday was that the linear actuator that works with the transmission shuttle overheated," Laird chirped in the video. "That got exciting a couple of times."
Laird's farm and machinery work comes under his business Lairdscape LLC, and he referred to his automated tractors as TractoBot 03 for 2017's version. As for pulling around the grain cart this past fall by remote control, he's thrilled. "That change alone sure beat what I was doing before jumping in and out of the combine to move the cart and having to fetch it out in the middle of a field."
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