Don’t new tractors drive themselves? What do farmers do in the cab?

November 10, 2022

Answer: Today many farms have GPS to guide machines through the field allowing farmers to use “auto-steer.” But a farmer still needs to keep an eye on things and manually steer at the ends of the field.

With auto-steer, the machine is set on a straight track (or line) and will follow that line until the driver turns it around manually. Manual driving is also required for the perimeters of fields, known as “headlands.”

In the spring, during planting season, we use GPS (Global Positioning System) to keep the tractor and planter going in straight lines. While the tractor is using auto-steer, the farmer can focus their attention on monitoring the planter’s performance. Planting monitors come with different levels of sophistication, but some can give very specific details about how seeds are being placed in the ground. For example, our monitor tracks each seed that is dropped and measures the distance from the previous seed. It is important that seeds are placed as close to equidistant as possible to allow each plant adequate space to develop.

While planting, one of the rows in the planter might get a piece of debris lodged in the metering system and cause a skip (a missing seed in a uniform row of seeds). Because I am not steering the tractor, I watch these monitors very closely and notice the faulty row quickly, and then can fix the issue before it becomes widespread. Obtaining precise seed placement allows the crop to utilize the space most effectively, without crowding or gaps for weeds to pop up, and ultimately the payoff is higher yields.

Auto-steer helps us plant the crop in beautiful, straight rows. Straight rows are MUCH easier to drive the sprayer down than crooked rows, with or without GPS; however, having GPS and auto-steer in the sprayer allows us to sync up to the same track we used to plant, and then drive right down the rows, with very minimal damage to the growing crop. Sprayers come in different widths, just like planters. Some sprayers cover up to 120 feet at a time – it is a lot to watch. Adjustments need to be made while going across the field to ensure even coverage and effectiveness of the chemical.

That brings us to fall. The crop has matured, and it is time to harvest. We use two different forms of automatic guidance in our combine. The first being the GPS/auto-steer system. The second is called Row Sense. This system uses antenna-like feelers to find the rows of corn, and then keep the combine in line with the rows. With these two technologies in the combine, we can focus on the performance of the machine.

Combines are designed to harvest many different types of crops, which means there many different components and settings that are adjusted. Manipulating these settings is an ongoing task throughout the harvest season with the end goal being to have maximum grain quality and cleanness. While the combine may be able to steer itself, the machine doesn’t have physical eyes to watch for hazards in the field. A close eye must be kept on the ground to avoid sucking large rocks, fallen branches, garbage, etc. into the machine.

The final operation for which we use GPS steering is tillage. This helps ensure that there are no gaps left in-between passes.

Technology in agriculture is advancing at an exponential rate. The newest software can be set to turn the machine around at the end of rows! This is another step towards full automation, which is already being tested. A few generations from now we will probably be laughing at the fact our tractors had steering wheels!