We are delighted to see The Weedinator as an entry for the 2018 Hackaday Prize! Innovations in agriculture are great opportunities to build something to improve our world. [TegwynTwmffat]’s Weedinator is an autonomous, electric platform aimed at small farms to take care of cultivating, tilling, and weeding seedbeds. The cost of this kind of labor can push smaller farms out of sustainability if it has to be done by people.
Greater efficiency in agriculture is traditionally all about multiplying the work a single person can do, and usually takes the form or bigger and heavier equipment that can do more at once and in less time. But with an autonomous robotic platform, the robot doesn’t get tired or bored so it doesn’t matter if the smaller platform needs to make multiple passes to cover a field or accomplish a task. In fact, smaller often means more maneuverable, more manageable, and more energy-efficient when it comes to a small farm.
The Original Weedinator was a contender for the 2017 Hackaday Prize and we’re deeply excited to see it return with an updated design and new people joining their team for 2018. Remember, there’s money set aside to help bootstrap promising concepts and all you really need to get started is an idea, an image, and documentation. There’s no better opportunity to dust off that idea and see if it has legs.
When it comes to activism, there are many different grades of activist aside from the few who you may encounter quietly and effectively working for change in their field. There are the self-proclaimed activists who sit in their armchairs and froth online about whatever their Cause is, but ultimately aside from making a lot of noise are pretty ineffectual. Then there are the Rebels With A Cause, involved in every radical movement of the moment and always out on the streets about something or other, but often doing those causes more harm than good. Activists can be hard work, at times.
If you are within whatever Establishment that has aroused the collective ire it is not the screamers and banner-wavers that should worry you, instead it is the people who are normally quiet. When people who spend their lives getting things done rather than complaining turn round en masse and rebel, it’s time to sit up and take notice. If people like the farmers or the squaddies are on the streets, the probability of your ending up on the wrong side of history has just increased exponentially and maybe it’s time to have a little think about where you’re going with all this.
The video below the break follows a group of Nebraska farmers fighting for the right to maintain their farm machinery, in particular the products of John Deere. Since all functions of a modern Deere are tied into the machine’s software, the manufacturer has used the DMCA to lock all maintenance into their dealer network. As one farmer points out, to load his combine harvester on a truck and take it on a 100-mile round trip to the dealer costs him $1000 every time a minor fault appears, and he and other farmers simply can’t afford that kind of loss. We’re taken to the Nebraska State Legislature and shown the progress of a bill that will enshrine the right to repair in Nebraskan law, and along the way we see the attempts by lobbyists to derail it.
We normally write Hackaday stories in the third person, but it’s worth saying that this is being written from a small farming community in Southern England, and that there is a green and yellow tractor parked outside somewhere. Thus it’s from first-hand experience that you can be told that Deere is in danger of becoming a damaged brand among its staunchest supporters. They still make damn fine tractors, but who wants to be caught with brief weather window to get on the land, and a machine that’s bricked itself? It’s hardly as though Deere are the only manufacturer of agricultural machinery after all.
This video is quite important, because it is a step towards the wider story becoming more than just a concern to a few farmers, hardware hackers, and right-to-repair enthusiasts. The last word should go to one of the farmers featured, when he points out that all his older tractors are just as capable of going out and doing the same day’s work without the benefit of all the computerized technology on their modern siblings.
There are so many autonomous devices nowadays that can run Skynet Inside(TM) that it’s hard to keep track. But one was still missing: the versatile Bobcat. When we say “Bobcat”, we mean track loader — it’s just one of those things that the name and the brand stoke together so strongly that it’s hard to actually recall the technical name. A company by the name of Built Robotics is betting on autonomous track loaders as being a big part of the future of construction.
The tractor can navigate, excavate, and carry a 1,000 pound load with 1 cm precision using its LIDAR, specially designed to work with high-vibration, high-impact environment of construction excavation. Additionally, the lasers also allow the robot to measure the amount of material it has scooped up. But the precision does not come from the LIDAR alone. To position the robot, Built Robotics uses augmented GPS, which combines an on-site base station and GPS satellites to produce accurate location data.
It is supposed to be completely autonomous: given a location and holes to dig, it can plan and execute the work. It resembles a self-driving car, but the challenges are actually quite different. Cars are mean to drive around and reach a destination without touching anything. Like the CEO of Built Robotics says:
“If a car is changing the environment around it, then something’s gone really wrong.”
Does everyone watch a load of videos on YouTube that are somewhat on the unadmissibly geeky side? In my case I might not care to admit that I have a lot of videos featuring tractors in my timeline. The mighty Russian Kirovets hauling loads through the impossible terrain of the taiga, tiny overloaded 2WD tractors in India pulling wheelies, and JCB Fastracs tearing around the British Fenland. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.
So my recommendations have something of an agricultural flavor. Like the video below the break, a 1917 silent film promoting the Ford Model B tractor. This one was eye-catching because it was a machine I’d not seen before, a rather unusual three-wheeler design with two driving wheels at the front and a single rear steering wheel.
During the early years of the twentieth century the shape of the modern tractor was beginning to evolve, this must have been a late attempt at an alternative. Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has operated a few tractors in her time it does not look the easiest machine to control, that cloud of exhaust smoke surrounding the driver would not be pleasant, and the operating position hanging over the implement coupling at the rear does not look particularly comfortable or safe.
The film has a charming period feel, and tells the tale of a farmer’s son who tires of the drudgery of manual farm labor, and leaves for the city. He finds a job at the tractor factory and eventually becomes a tractor salesman, along the way meeting and marrying the daughter of a satisfied customer. He returns home with his bride, and a shiny new tractor to release his father from ceaseless labor. Along the way we gain a fascinating look at agriculture on the brink of mass mechanization, as well as the inside of a tractor factory of the time with an assembly sequence in which they appear to use no fasteners.
All of this is very interesting, but the real nugget in the story lies with its manufacturer. This is a Ford Model B tractor. But it’s not a Ford Model B. Confused? So, it seems were the customers. The Ford we all know is the Michigan-based motor company of Henry Ford, who were already very much a big name in 1917. This Ford however comes from the Ford Tractor Co, of South Dakota, an enterprise set up by a shady businessman to cash in on the Ford brand, manufacturing an already outdated and inferior machine backed up by dubious claims of its capabilities.
On the staff was an engineer called Ford who lent his name to the company, but he bore no relation to Henry Ford. The company didn’t last long, collapsing soon after the date of this film, and very few of its products survived. It did have one legacy though, the awful quality of one of its tractors is reputed to have been the impetus behind the founding of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, the place where if you sell a tractor in the USA, you’ll have to have it tested to ensure it performs as it should. In their museum they house one of the few surviving Ford Model B tractors.
Meanwhile the Ford in Michigan produced their own very successful line of tractors, and their Fordson Model F from the same year is a visible ancestor of today’s machines. But as the video below shows, there’s nothing new about a fake.
The incredible screw drive tractor is back. We’ve covered the previous test ride, which ended with a bearing pillow block ripping in half, but since then, again, a lot of repair work has been done. [REDNIC79] reinforced the load-bearing parts and put on a fresh pair of “tires”. The result is still as unbelievable as the previous versions, but it now propels itself forward at a blazing 3 mph (this time without tearing itself apart).
[REDNIC79] walks us through all the details of the improvements he made since the first version. After the last failure, he figured, that a larger screw pod diameter would give the vehicle a better floatation while smaller thread profile would prevent the screws from digging too deep into the ground, thus reducing the force required to move the vehicle forward.
[REDNIC79] found four identical 100 pounds, 16 inch diameter propane tanks to build the new pods from. The tanks were a bit too short for the tractor, so he cut open two of the tanks and used them to extend the other two before welding a double thread screw onto each. He also tapered the front ends of the tanks to make the ride even smoother. After mounting the new pods to the speedster, a pair of custom steel chain guards were added to prevent rocks from getting into the chain. And then, it was time for another test ride. Enjoy the video:
It’s not unusual for new technologies to preserve vestiges of those that preceded them. If an industry has an inertia of doing things in a particular way then it makes commercial sense for any upstarts to build upon those established practices rather than fail to be adopted. Thus for example some industrial PLCs with very modern internals can present interfaces that hark back to their relay-based ancestors, or deep within your mobile phone there may still be AT commands being issued that would be familiar from an early 1980s modem.
Just occasionally though an attempt to marry a new technology to an old one becomes an instant anachronism, something that probably made sense at the time but through the lens of history seems just a bit crazy. And so we come to the subject of this piece, the rein-operated agricultural tractor.
[Matt Reimer] is a farmer in Southwestern Manitoba, Canada. It’s grain country, and at harvest time he has a problem. An essential task when harvesting is that of the grain cart driver, piloting a tractor and grain trailer that has to constantly do the round between unloading the combine harvester and depositing the grain in a truck. It’s a thankless, unrelenting, and repetitive task, and [Matt]’s problem is that labour is difficult to find when every other farmer in the region is also hiring.
Writing from the point of view of someone who grew up on a farm and has done her share of harvest-time tractor driving it’s possible to see both the strengths and weaknesses of an autonomous grain cart. His fields on the Canadian prairie are very large and flat, there is plenty of space and the grain makes its way from the field to the elevator in a truck. To perform the same task in the smaller and irregular fields of southern England for example with a mile round trip down country lanes to the grain store would be a much greater challenge. Aside from that it’s worth noting that his John Deere is a 220hp 4WD workhorse that is capable of going over almost any terrain on a farm with very few obstacles able to stop it. This thing can do serious damage to life and property simply by running it over or driving straight through it, so safety has a dimension with an autonomous tractor in a way that it never will with for example a vacuum cleaner or even a lawnmower.
Those observations aside, this kind of technology undeniably represents a step change in farming practice on a par with the move from horse power to tractors in the first half of the last century. However the technological barriers that remain end up being solved, it’s likely that you’ll see plenty more machines like this in the fields of the future.
The video below the break shows the autonomous grain cart in action. Plenty of big-sky tractoring action, and for those of you unfamiliar with farming it should provide some understanding of the task of getting grain from combine to store.
We’ve talked about robotic farming more than once here at Hackaday. The gantry-based Farmbot, the six-legged Prospero robot farmer, or another hexapod confusingly also called Farmbot, for example. But these have all been hacker’s solutions to the problem using the concepts with which they are familiar. What makes [Matt]’s project different is that it is a farmer’s solution to a real farming problem by automating the machinery he already uses to do the job. Farmers have been doing what we would now call hacking at the hardware of their craft since time immemorial, [Matt]’s work is just the latest manifestation of a rich heritage.