Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robot planters

I completely forgot to tell you about Dad's new farm equipment.

My parents have a farm outside Wichita. Dad much prefers fixing the equipment to working the fields. I much prefer having Dad pay me to work the field to working at a fast food joint. But now both kids are out of the house and holding down jobs of their own. Even the kids of the people renting out Grammie's place have gotten old enough to be doing work and college instead of working the fields.

So Dad needs a way to be able to spend less time in the field than traditional farming methods would allow. And if that means he gets some new equipment to tinker with all the better.

Dad has switched to a no-till farming method. This means no more churning up the ground over and over with the plow, disk, chisel, and springtooth. Environmentalists like this because churning up the ground like that releases CO2 into the air. The advantage of doing that is that you can see where you've been.

Instead he has a new GPS system in the tractor. A Global Positioning Satellite receiver in a bloody tractor! I remember being thrilled when we got an FM radio installed. The GPS works with an accompanying computer to figure where the equipment behind the tractor is. This is necessary because since all you're doing is spraying pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer you can't look at the field and know where you've been and where you've missed.

When I was there the sprayer was hooked up so I'm gonna talk about that. The computer keeps track of where you've been to within six inches. It knows how far behind the tractor the sprayer is and how fast you're going. So when you cross over somewhere you've already sprayed it waits a few seconds until the sprayer reaches that point and then shuts off the sprayer.

The computer knows how wide the sprayer is. It has a couple of different kinds of displays to show you where you need to drive to make sure you don't miss an area or spray an area twice. One gives you an aerial of you and your immediate surroundings. The other is just a row of lights that you're trying to keep the middle light lit. If you're too far one way or another the light moves left or right. And the computer can shut off sections of the sprayer if you overlap by too much. It's operated in three sections so you'd have to overlap by a lot. It'd be used best when trying to navigate around mud holes that the computer doesn't know about or when trying to finish up a small spot when you've almost finished the field.

Dad says he can also get a doohicky that gets integrated into the steering system and can do the fine driving for you. You still need someone to drive around the mud holes, dodge the fences and occasional tree, and turn the tractor around. But it'll handle the bit about making sure that you don't overlap or miss an area as you cruise up and down.

Considering some of the other automatic driving systems I've seen under development I'd like to think that in another 25 years Dad would be able to give the tractor orders in much the same way he told my brother and I where to work. I remember reading some science fiction stories that included massive fully automated farming machines off working huge fields unbroken by roads or fences. They'd till, fertilize, and plant all in one sweep. I picture something kind of like a Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars. We might just have those some day.

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