No driver needed for tractor of the future

Case IH debuts concept vehicle in Iowa

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Case IH
Innovation: Autonomous concept tractor

The auto industry has received plenty of attention as companies imagine what a world of driverless cars will mean for transportation. Ford has received a patent on a car as a rolling movie theater, Tesla owners already can turn driving over to the autopilot mode and Adient, the spinoff of Johnson Controls’ seating business, spent a large portion of its investor day discussing how car seats will be remarkably different with autonomous driving.

In the same way, Case IH, the Racine-based brand of CNH Industrial, which is based in the U.K., is trying to envision what it will look like when farmers no longer have to sit on the tractor to take care of their fields.

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Case IH introduced an autonomous tractor concept vehicle at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Iowa that was noticeably missing something – a place for the driver to sit.

The same technology that allows for a cabless tractor would also pave the way for autonomous combines or other farm equipment.

Leo Bose, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager, noted agricultural technology has come a long way over the course of the company’s history, going from horsedrawn, to mechanization, to the automated technology used today.

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Even in the two decades Bose has been with the company, he said he’s seen a progression from using technology to monitor crop yield and moisture levels, to pinpointed production, to the introduction of guidance and automation of some tasks in the cab.

“The autonomous concept vehicle takes it one step further,” Bose said.

He said Case IH doesn’t have any current plans for commercializing the vehicle. It is intended as a way to demonstrate what is possible, although there is potential for some technology to be incorporated in other products.

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The vehicle is intended to be operated in a geofenced area, with sensors keeping it in a predefined space. It can be given a task and the vehicle’s software will preplan the route, allowing it to find the most efficient path.

The Case IH autonomous concept vehicle.
The Case IH autonomous concept vehicle.

The vehicle then uses LiDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging), radar and cameras while it is in the field to sense objects like branches or animals, stopping the vehicle if something is in the way. The operator will receive an alert on a tablet or desktop computer, see an image of the object and decide whether to remove the object or continue around it.

Case IH spent several years developing the concept vehicle, Bose said, and worked with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. to develop it. The company has taken the vehicle to trade shows to get feedback from potential users and address their questions.

The questions have included whether multiple machines could be used in a field, the potential impact of weather and the ability to run 24 hours a day, Bose said.

One of the potential advantages is the ability to run multiple machines, he said, noting it would free labor up to do other tasks, although the machines still need supervision, limiting the potential to run all day and night.

Bose also said sensor technology needs to catch up to the ability of an operator to see, hear or feel issues with how an implement is performing.

“There’s the human side,” he said, noting more technology is needed in implements to handle wheel slippage in wet conditions or adjusting for differences in the ground.

Just as the auto industry faces a need for new regulations as autonomous vehicles take to the road, there are potential challenges for a cabless tractor. While it would primarily operate on private land and in a field, many farmers have to spend at least some time on public roads to get to a field. Bose said the technology would likely come to a tractor with a cab first, allowing an operator to drive it to a field and then engage the autonomous features.

That didn’t stop Case IH from imagining what a cabless tractor could look like. Bose said the design is aggressive and bold and has received good feedback.

“Our styling team just did an awesome job with it,” he said.

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