COLUMBIA, Mo. – A first-of-its-kind tractor at the University of Missouri is allowing students to help shape the future of agriculture.
It’s a new era for tractors. Besides being electric, it’s also autonomous, meaning the driver can control the tractor from a phone or tablet instead of being behind the wheel. The goal is to make farming more efficient and accurate.
“Compared to a normal tractor, yes, it’s very quiet,” Rob Myers, director of the MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture, said as he watched the tractor drive in the field Monday.
This isn’t your average tractor. It’s equipped with sensors, cameras, and a battery set to run for nearly 10 hours, all connected to a supercomputer.
While this is the first electric autonomous tractor in the Midwest, similar designs are already being used along the west coast.
“They are using them in high-value grape production systems, which often need to be sprayed regularly during the season for the grapes,” Myers said.
Although it’s autonomous, the University of Missouri is still waiting on the software to allow them to drive it by the touch of a finger.
“There haven’t been any changes to tractors for a long time,” Myers, who grew up on a farm in central Illinois, said. “We went from steel wheels to rubber wheels many, many decades ago. The tractors keep getting bigger, they do get more technology, but this is kind of a whole new era of tractors.”
Myers is a co-principal investigator in the project, and he works alongside Jianfeng Zhou, a professor in the Division of Plant Services and Technology at Mizzou.
“This is a side camera, looking at the left side,” Zhou said. “Anybody in the safety range detected by the camera, the tractor will stop.”
Zhou, the project leader, said there are six cameras on the tractor and lights bright enough to work in the dark. He said part of the autonomous function is that the computer can record the tractor’s path, operation and speed, and then it can repeat the same route without the driver.
The tractor is being used between the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the MU College of Engineering. The team at MU is leading an interdisciplinary collaboration among other universities across the Midwest, including Lincoln University, Kansas State University and Penn State University.
Researchers hope to understand the tractor’s ability to enhance precision agriculture like determining when a sprayer system should be used and how people with disabilities can benefit from the technology.
Myers said this electronic autonomous tractor costs roughly $80,000, double the cost of a regular tractor this size. Mizzou was able to purchase the Monarch MK-V tractor with a great deal through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Believe it or not, the biggest number of tractors in the market is smaller tractors, what we call utility tractors,” Myers said. “You would use this type of tractor in an orchard, a vegetable farm or livestock operation where you need to work in the barns. Because it is quiet, it can work around animals more easily, grounds, maintenance, so there’s a wide variety of uses for these smaller tractors.”
This type of technology could lead to farmers controlling multiple electric autonomous tractors at the same time. Another advantage is not only the driver’s safety, but also warning the farmer of possible problems in the field.
“We want to have these cameras, these sensors, able to detect any crop problems, soil problems, and make recommendations to farmers on what steps they need to take,” Zhou said. “It also provides less carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases to help the environment.”
Myers said this will help save labor costs, time, and will shape the future of agriculture.
“When I was a kid, driving a tractor back and forth many times all day long over the field, it probably would have sounded pretty cool to have a tractor that could drive itself over the field while I could do something else,” Myers said.
Mizzou expects to have the computer software within the next month, but students are already studying the tractor in classes to figure out what the best use for an electric autonomous tractor is.