How NASA helped launch self-driving tractors

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Think self-driving cars are futuristic? You should go to a farm. Thousands of farmers around the world are already using self-driving tractors.

Thanks to NASA and the John Deere manufacturing company, automated tractors are harvesting a mind-boggling 70 percent of the farmland in North America, along with up to 50 percent in Europe and South America.

Another way to think about it: Many tractors now use satellite guidance systems more powerful than a military fighter jet’s.

Why ‘robotractors’?

Combine plowing field (© AP Images)
Self-guided tractors can reduce growing costs up to 20 percent, according to John Deere research. (© AP Images)

The reason farmers are even thinking about self-driving tractors is easy: When farmers drive tractors across a field, seeding or plowing, rows can overlap by about 10 percent. That means a big chunk of a field gets double the seed, fertilizer or pesticide that it doesn’t need.

So in the 1990s, U.S. tractor manufacturer John Deere started experimenting with breakthrough technology to try to reduce overlap: the same satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) you probably use on your phone.

As it turns out, GPS signals can be off by 9 meters — not ideal for precise tractor control. But working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the company was able to license and develop software that made GPS incredibly accurate.

John Deere and NASA scientists tackled the problem together. “We linked our systems quite tightly,” said Yoaz Bar-Sever of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

With the new software, tractors could rely on accurate navigation within 10 centimeters.

“That allowed us to get machines in the field all over the world that would guide themselves,” said Terry Pickett of John Deere.

A quiet agricultural revolution

Self-guided tractors allowed farmers to cut fuel costs, reduce equipment wear and tear and plan better for the future. You’ll still see someone in the cab, though — operators are still required so as to avoid accidents.

John Deere’s partnership with NASA helped spark a new paradigm of farming. Accuracy and data have contributed to a new era of precision agriculture, which has lowered costs, increased yields and improved quality worldwide, Pickett said.

How’s that for a high-tech dinner?