At first glance, it looks like one of Matthew Reimer’s farm crew is, well, kind of short.
Actually, there is no one driving that grain cart tractor as it navigates the field and pulls up to unload the combine on his Killarney-area farm.
Reimer has programmed it to be driverless.
Reimer was awarded first place by judges with the Inventors’ Showcase at Ag Days last week for turning his tractor into a robot, wiring its electronics to the autopilot out of a drone.
It can unload a combine on the go and navigate autonomously within the field, communicating with the combine. It’s controlled by the touch of a screen that signals its GPS locations.
“It does a calculation to figure out where the tractor should be, tells the tractor to go to that GPS location, and just does that repeatedly on a loop,” Reimer told reporters in Brandon last week.
“In order to call the tractor over you just hit ‘start unloading. The tractor drives over on its own, you have to speed it up the first time, then when it gets close it slows down automatically. When you’re done unloading, you just hit “empty.”
A driverless tractor was just an idea rolling around in his mind a year ago.
“I’ve thought it was a good idea for a long time. I just didn’t know how to do it,” he said.
“Then I stumbled across an autopilot that’s out of a drone, and the lightbulb went on in my head. It has the algorithm for navigating a vehicle. I thought if I can put it in my tractor, it’ll take care of that.”
Reimer, who is president of his new company Reimer Robotics, was in Brandon last week to share the idea with other farmers. The software and hardware deployed are open source.
“Anyone can pick up this technology and work on it,” he said, adding he hopes other producers will build on the concept and advance the innovation.
Reimer deployed the tractor-turned-robot on his family’s farm this past fall. They’ve never had a harvest go more smoothly, he said.
It’s meant to be labour saving, but in their case it was labour maximizing, he said.
It meant the person otherwise sitting with the grain cart all day was able to do many more jobs instead of just sitting idle.
“I had him swathing and harrowing and running for fuel and doing all these other jobs that keep our operation running smooth,” he said.
“We got all our fertilizer on. Everything just worked really good and part of the reason was we were able to get so many more things done while we were combining.”
Reimer is adamant that robotics like this won’t replace working on the farm. The notion that farmers one day will sit in offices controlling farm equipment remotely is “still science fiction stuff,” he said.
“It’s just going to change how we work,” he said. “Up to this point, farms have been growing and what’s allowed farms to grow is that equipment has got bigger and more efficient so you can get more done with one tractor than you used to be able to, but it is reaching the limits of what we can fit on our roads.
“I think we’re going to start to see more tractors, but smaller. So instead of having one tractor, maybe you’ll drive one but the other one will be unmanned.”