100 years in the making: the fully autonomous tractor

It’s been a long time coming, but the fully autonomous tractor is becoming a reality.

Since the introduction of the tractor, innovators have been trying to relieve the operator of as much burden as possible.

The earliest form of machine guidance was disc or wheel that guided the front wheels of the tractor the correct distance from the furrow wall while ploughing.



 1910 tractor guidance. Note small wheel running along the plough furrow.

Next, leap forwards to the 1940s & 50s. Both in the USA and here in the UK radio control was the technology of the day. This removed the operator from the noise and dust but still needed to see where the tractor was going and what the implement was up to. In practice the operator would have been more worn out with worry as it sped around the field without the feeling you where entirely in control.

Next to the 1970s, giving the tractor and implement automatic functions as it works in the field. The tractor followed a wire buried in the ground. The wire would have at particular magnetic points in the field with different combinations of polarity, sequence, and distance laid alongside the track to tell the tractor to raise and lower linkage and turn around. Trouble was, the system was only good for one cropping operation. But the technology went on to be used in warehouse and factory based autonomous vehicles up to the present day with complete success.

By 1995 a by-product of US President Ronald Regan’s Star-Wars defence programme made a technology called Global Positioning System, GPS, available to the world. Innovators where quick to understand the benefits to agriculture and in 1997 a driverless swather set off across a Pennsylvanian field guided by GPS and used camera technology to detect obstacles and turn around. But what is exactly an ‘obstacle’? Fears around if the machine would stop when it detects the family pet and carry on, or when simply un-cut crop is encountered needed the autonomous machine to be in touch with someone.

Someone who didn’t need to be in the field at the time, and someone who could look after a number of machines all working in different parts of the farm, or indeed the world. What that someone needed was a web of communications, world-wide. A World Wide Web you might call it.

So bringing us up to date, the combination of GPS and global, digital communications, sensor and camera technology may just have cracked the issue of a fully autonomous farm machine. It’s only taken a hundred years!

Driverless tractor



Based at Ashkam Bryan near York, Harry grew up on a beef farm in his native north Wales. Subsequently, Harry developed an interest in farm machinery that took him around the world working in agriculture. Having managed a plant breeding farm near Cambridge for Monsanto, in 2005 Harry joined John Deere as Crop Systems Specialist, from where he was recruited by AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.

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