November 30, 2001 | By: Gidget High, Ag. Communications Intern

Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to get on a tractor again and cut the fields or spray tobacco? University of Kentucky Biosystems and Agricultural engineer Tim Stombaugh is working to make this a reality.

He is trying to come up with something robotic, much cheaper than the tractor equipment, with a light bar guidance aid. The light bar is a horizontal bar attached to the Global Positioning System on the tractor. On the farmer-driven tractor, the farmer tells the computer how wide the machine is, and the computer computes where each subsequence pass should be, but the farmer has to tell it the width of the field. Lights will illuminate to tell the driver if they start deviating from the path. The lights will show where the farmer needs to be steering the tractor.

“It’s like playing a video game,” Stombaugh said. “It helps the driver drive straight, but not so much straight as that there is no overlapping and double cover.”

There are some automatic steering systems to go with these tractors, but they are very expensive. These systems are much harder to use and they have to have maintained radio links. They will tell farmers where they are within an inch or less, showing tremendous accuracy. These units start at about $40,000. Stombaugh is trying to tie the low accuracy systems into steering.

“We have had good amounts of success,” Stombaugh said. “We are staying within three feet of the path we want to be, in most cases.”

AGCO Corporation has given UK a sprayer to use for the GPS research. Stombaugh anticipates the technology will eventually become commercially available. The tractor was the starting point, but researchers are going beyond that and looking at some robotic tractors, which are still in exploratory stage.

Stombaugh said an advantage of driverless tractors is time savings, since a farmer usually is limited by daylight hours. With an automated machine, he said farming can be done day or night, rain or shine.

Also, it decreases the chance for overlaps in the field, therefore reducing soil compaction and the amount of chemicals applied to the field.

“Let’s replace that big machine with a couple of small machines, that are autonomous basic little robots,” Stombaugh said. “These machines can go for 24 hours and not stop. Time is a big issue in agriculture.”


Tim Stombaugh 859 257-3000, ext. 214