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Someday Your Tractor Will Drive Itself...And Know What It's Doing!

Las Vegas is, for this week, the center of the technology world. It's where the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicked off Monday, with companies both large and small vying for a piece of the consumer technology spending dollar with the latest and greatest gadgets, tools and systems.

A major feature of this year's CES is the "Internet of Things," namely in the functionality it can bring to the automotive and, ultimately, the farm machinery industry. It's essentially the convergence of the "real world" with its digital mirror. In other words, it's what exists in the world and what exists in the digital world created by things like computer sensors, networks and web-based tools, all of which seek to augment or complement the real world in new, profound and, most importantly, useful and practical ways. This year, much of the hardware and software that will eventually be available to the consumer (some sooner rather than later) on display at CES focuses on this convergence of the real and digital worlds. And, a lot of it has potential application on the farm. Ultimately, your tractor could drive itself...and know what it's doing!

A Tiny Chip with Massive Capabilities

NVIDIA is a chipmaker that's unveiling a set of microprocessors and chips at CES that "powerful" almost seems to fall short in describing. The lineup's highlighted by the Tegra X1, a "mobile super chip" that can perform computing tasks numbering in the trillions...per second. A "teraflop" ("flop" stands for floating-point operations per second) is the measuring stick for this level of computer operations per second, and is the unit of measure that up until recently was reserved for the world's supercomputers ("Tegra X1 packs more power than the fastest supercomputer of 15 years ago," according to an NVIDIA report.)

What's that mean? It means that this chip -- which is "no bigger than a thumbnail" -- has up to 1,000 times the computing capacity of the average computer today. The company's CEO Jen-Hsun Huang lends this perspective: "Tegra X1 provides more power than a supercomputer the size of a suburban family home from 15 years ago."

Why would this innovation matter to farmers? Huang says his company's not marketing this major computing firepower for use in computers or smartphones; the Tegra X1 was designed for the automotive industry that will ultimately produce vehicles that are not only self-driving, but "self-aware" based on the user's input and direction.

"Your future cars will be the most advanced computers in the world. There will be more computing horsepower inside a car than anything you own today," Huang says in a NVIDIA report. "When you're done with diner you say 'Can come back to me?' And it becomes an auto-valet. That car meanders back out and gets back to the driver."

Go On Autopilot

Much of what super chips like NVIDIA's Tegra X1 will power and control in the vehicle sector will be sensors and cameras that, through virtually instantaneous controls, will make safe and effective driverless operation possible. German carmaker Audi is testing things like these sensors and how they can yield safe self-driving cars in a big way this week. A car with no driver, but equipped with sensors and cameras controlled by a similar computer, made the 550-mile drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas earlier this week without so much as a human hand guiding its steering wheel or foot hitting the gas pedal.

The technology behind Audi's driverless car -- which the company has yet to speculate when it will hit the consumer market -- is certainly cutting edge. But, for many farmers, the nuts and bolts keeping that technology won't sound all that unfamiliar.

"To ensure precise orientation on the course with centimetre accuracy, the vehicle made use of specially conditioned GPS data, which is transmitted to the car via the WLAN automotive standard as well as redundantly via high-frequency radio," according to an Audi report on a prototype driverless racecar unveiled and tested late last year. "Simultaneously, 3D cameras monitored the course by video. A computational program compares the information from the images to a data set that is stored in the vehicle."

So, what if you could simply send your tractor out to plant the next field from your kitchen table or the coffee shop? Now, that could be possible.

Touchscreen, Gesture Controls

Remember this video from John Deere a couple of years ago? It may have seemed a little futuristic for most at that time. But, some of the innovations shown in the video aren't far from widespread availability if this year's CES is any indication. One is the touchscreen. For anyone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer with touchscreen functionality, what Volkswagen (VW) has on display at CES this week won't be much of a shocker. But in a car? That's precisely what VW is rolling out: A touchscreen control interface that incorporates controls via the driver's gestures, this year in a model of the company's Golf hatchback. It's the "merging of car and computer" that Volkswagen Product Communications Director Peter Thul says will become a major factor in automotive development in the future.

"In the future, the car will not only merge with the mobile world, it will also be more intuitive for people to operate. Today, and in the future, the car will adapt by recognizing their occupants' movements -- via controls based on proximity sensors and gesture recognition. Today, the latest infotainment systems by Volkswagen already detect the approach of a hand with proximity sensors," according to a Volkswagen report. "In the next revolutionary step -- which Volkswagen is showing with the Golf R Touch concept vehicle at CES -- the infotainment unit will use cameras to not only detect hand gestures, but understand but assign meaning to them. Gesture control will make it possible to control displays and functionality without having to use a touchscreen. This technology adds comfort and convenience to human-vehicle interaction by reducing driver distractions while operating controls, and further underscores the synchronized relationship between the car and the computer."

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