Indiana Farmer Blazes Trail to Driverless Tractors

11/2/2018 1:13:37 PM by Carissa Shaul

Kyler Laird is about to carve a notch into agriculture history by planting 10,000 acres of soybeans with a driverless tractor. Skeptics beware: Laird has loosed the DIY robots and his operation will never be the same.

Kyler Laird is about to carve a notch into agriculture history by planting 10,000 acres of soybeans with a ghost behind the wheel. The Indiana farmer planted all his corn with a driverless, automated tractor in 2017, punching holes across 535 acres, and he intends to go big in 2019. Skeptics beware: Laird has loosed the DIY robots and his operation will never be the same.

How does a farmer automate fieldwork prior to harvest? Start with a John Deere 420 lawn tractor and climb the driverless ladder—Massey Ferguson 2745, Challenger MT765, and John Deere 6330. Growers often cast dubious eyes at promises of automation, but Laird’s ingenuity is proof in the dirt of technological change on the near horizon. Under the umbrella of his fledgling company, Sabanto, Laird aims to barnstorm across 10,000 acres of farmland from Texas to Canada in a benchmark planting demonstration of equipment utilization and robot efficiency.

Whether on the computer or driving the tractor, Laird constantly felt the pull of automation. “Even when I was out disking in middle school, I’d be thinking, ‘This can be automated.’ I was the only one at my entire school with a computer and that’s the direction my mind always went.”

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Following a computer science degree at Purdue University, Laird worked for the Purdue School of Engineering for a decade and gained a master’s degree in ag systems management. Beginning in 2001, he helped found the University of California Merced. In 2010, Wally passed due to a brain tumor and Laird’s trip on the farming roundabout came full-circle. “I went home. Agronomy was not my strong suit and I had to figure out what I was good at. I knew automation and I had an idea of how to get there.”

Laird bought several pieces of new John Deere equipment and forged a plan: Pivot away from automation for a five-year chunk in order to learn standard machinery operation and then transition to autonomy. “I wanted to first get a feel for things. My dad hated grain carts and used a six-row combine so I had to get current equipment. I was working and thinking, ‘This can get so much better if I take control of my machines.’”

Cranking the Ghost Mower

In 2015, Laird began dabbling with a driverless John Deere 420 lawn tractor intending to start tiny and go big. The lawn tractor, dubbed Tractobot00, afforded Laird little space for work, essentially forcing Laird to rip out the entire electrical system and hydraulics���all the hoses and hard lines. Counterintuitively, the lawn tractor would prove harder to automate than big tractors. “I had to make my own hard lines, with all the flaring and bending. It was quite an experience and I had to do it from scratch.”

Next up? A Massey Ferguson 2745 tractor in 2016: Tractobot01. “This was comparatively easy. I had plenty of room to work. My goal was simple: How dumb can I make it?”

Laird utilized a bang-bang valve for the steering, a ride height sensor to indicate how far the front wheels turned, and a GPS receiver to monitor location. He used a simple, linear actuator on the clutch and another bang-bang valve to raise or lower the implement: “I logged in to the tractor with my laptop with text interface and drilled 50 acres of beans. It did a much better job than I ever did and I learned great lessons.”

Small Steps Forward

The cost of the components differed with each vehicle, ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars, plus hundreds of hours of labor. However, over the long-term, the savings are tremendous, according to Laird: “I can’t afford to hire people; full-time employees are not an option. I’ve never tallied what this saves me now, but I know what it costs to hire someone who can go all the time, day in and day out.”

Rather than hire labor, Laird says the economical solution on his operation is to buy open-station small tractors and automate for a few thousand dollars: “That puts me ahead. I don’t know the savings, but to keep on spending money is not an option.”

Tomorrow’s Farming World?

What’s next for Laird? 10,000 acres of soybeans. Alongside Sabanto business partner Craig Rupp, co-founder of 640 Labs, Laird aims to plant across the U.S. and into Canada during 2019, with a single, driverless tractor pulling an 18-row, 30’ planter.

The Sabanto duo will select a new, off-the-shelf tractor model and apply the necessary automation modifications. One single unit will plant the acreage as part of a roving, unprecedented demonstration. “This is a beginning step. It’ll be an inefficient demo and have lots of support, but this is also a step towards something we plan to scale up,” Laird emphasizes.

“Machinery is underutilized and this is our attempt to show how we can better take advantage of equipment,” he continues. “For years I used a 40’ planter on 1,700 acres; now we’re going smaller with a 30’ planter, yet covering 10,000 acres. It’s a first move to show how automation works and how we’ve solved some efficiency problems.”