Harvesters that drive themselves

Jo FulwoodCountryman

Autonomous tractors, harvesters and sprayers could soon become reality, according to experts.

While it sounds too good to be true, a group of agricultural engineers have been pushing the boundaries of design and technology to bring farmers products to improve efficiencies, reduce occupational hazards and increase farm profits.

National Society for Engineering in Agriculture chairman, Merredin-based Glen Riethmuller, said products such as the autonomous tractor were just a few of the many innovative solutions showcased at the recent Society for Engineering in Agriculture Conference.

Delegates from five countries participated in the biannual conference, held in September in Mandurah, where numerous advances in agricultural engineering were unveiled.

Mr Riethmuller said the driverless tractor may soon be seen in WA paddocks and discussions were underway to test prototypes on some of the State's farms.

He said there were examples of automated vehicles operating effectively in other industries throughout the world, including Google driverless mapping cars and automated box carriers at the Patrick container terminals.

One US-based company already uses autonomous sprayers in orchards.

"Spraying in an orchard is a hazard to the worker. With the fog of spray going everywhere, the owners had to blood test workers every month, so an automated sprayer was an obvious answer to removing the human element from this equation," Mr Riethmuller said.

"And when you take the cab away, it is incredible how much money you save not having to keep the driver comfortable.

"Also, without the cab they found they were able to go under the branches, which they couldn't do before, so it made the job more efficient."

Mr Riethmuller said the idea was not just about reducing labour, because efficiency was also important - especially on broadacre farms.

"If you have one chaser bin and two harvesters, a driverless tractor can calculate which header to go to in the most efficient way," he said.

"If you have more than one header, they say that the chaser bin driver has to be the sharpest tool in the shed."

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