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Will your tractor ever run itself?

Jeff Caldwell 09/19/2012 @ 8:17am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Your machinery one day will be able to operate itself -- with you behind a computer screen or other type of controller -- in the field. Manufacturers say they've already got the building blocks in place to make autonomous operations possible, and that functionality isn't far off.

The technology's there. The mechanical pieces are in place. So, will it take off? Opinions are split among farmers and members of the ag industry, if recent discussion on Agriculture.com's Facebook page is any indication.

"I predict that the same unmanned technology that is now being used in [unmanned aerial vehicles] by the Air Force will eventually work its way to the farm," says Kevin Penner, broker and contributor with AgTraderTalk.com. "First, it will allow a farmer to sit behind a screen and control equipment that is out in the field. Eventually it will become autonomous."

But, other farmers say there are hitches to the advancement of the technology, and it's not going to be that easy to transition to "driverless" tractors and combines. Some say it depends vastly on the landscape and it could result in a lot more wear and tear on machinery.

"It will only work in foolproof fields," says Waverly, Missouri, farmer Mitch Sowers. "Any ditches or destructive objects will tear up the equipment."

Still, other farmers say while it's not total fiction, the technology needs to advance further before it can become a reality in every field. And, others say the human element will always be a part of most all fieldwork.

"A computer and autonomous system will never replace a live body in the seat. Heck they can't even get most of the GPS guidance to work 100% of the time," adds Ashkum, Illinois, farmer Mark McDermott Jr. "We don't have any fields without at least a ditch, waterway, tile drain, tile hole, etc. I'm all for using guidance systems because they do improve efficiency, but I can't see the operator being totally replaced by a computer."

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