There are two professions used to driving single-seaters with hundreds of horsepower, one of which is very exclusive and the other of which can be found anywhere the ground is fertile enough to support agriculture. Formula One drivers operate fragile machines pushed to the edges of their performance envelope, while the tractor at the hands of a farmer is designed to reliably perform huge tasks on dodgy ground in all weathers. Today’s tractor is invariably a large machine powered by a diesel engine, and it’s the equal of all tasks on a modern farm. Against that backdrop then it’s interesting to read the Smithsonian magazine’s look at the emerging world of electric tractors. Will they replace diesel as the source of traction in the fields?
The two firms they focus on first are Monarch Tractor, and Solectrac. Both manufacturers offer small machines of the type we’d be inclined to describe as an orchard tractor, and Monarch are offering an autonomous option as part of their package. They also feature Farm-ng, whose machine called amusingly the Amiga, is a much smaller affair which we are guessing would be super-useful on a very intensive operation such as market gardening. We’re especially pleased to see that the emerging small electric tractor industry is embracing right to repair, something the traditional manufacturers are famous for ignoring.
It’s obvious that none of these machines are going to revolutionize the world of large high-power tractors any time soon, as they are too small for the job and can’t offer the 24/7 operation required at busy times on a farm. But it’s obvious they would be very useful on a small farm, and in particular for those tractor applications where the machine is a platform which goes from place to place to aid static work, they could be better than their diesel equivalents.
It’s odd that over the years we’ve not covered any electric tractors before. Perhaps that is, until you search instead for agricultural robots.
Over the last few years we have brought you many stories about John Deere tractors, and how their repair has been locked down such that only manufacturer-authorised technicians can work on them. They’ve become a poster child in the battle for the right to repair, a symbol of the worst practices. Finally now we can bring you some good news of sorts, as the agricultural giant has signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation to ensure that their products will henceforth be repairable by people without Deere approval.
So this is good news, and we’re guessing that other agricultural manufacturers doing the same DMCA practices will now follow suit. But it’s not a complete victory. The problem starts not with the DMCA restriction itself, but with the extension of the machine’s computer system into every part, including those many parts which simply don’t need it. It’s not a complete victory if anyone can now use the software to register a new hydraulic valve with the system; instead that hydraulic valve should not have to be authorised in the first place. It’s this creeping unnecessary complexity which is the true enemy of right-to-repair, and we shouldn’t forget that.
Hydrogen has long been touted as a potential fuel of the future. While it’s failed to catch on in cars as batteries have taken a strong lead, it still holds great promise for larger vehicles like trucks.
Around October, amid all the pumpkin spiced food and beverages, folks make their yearly pilgrimage to a local farm. They load themselves onto hay-filled tractor trailers and ride out in search of the perfect pumpkin to put on the front porch, and let it slowly decompose. The “closest” a video game has come to replicating this seasonal event is the annual Farming Simulator series. One modder, [Dylan], decided to add an extra level of authenticity to the Farming Simulator experience by controlling the game with an actual tractor.
The opportunity for the project presented itself thanks to a local Kiwi farmer (Kiwi as in New Zealand, not the fruit) who provided [Dylan] with access to a Case IH 310 Magnum CVT tractor. [Dylan] built a custom USB controller that mirrored the actual layout of the tractor’s control pad. Tilt sensors were wrapped around the tractor’s steering wheel and throttle to provide analog input for steering and speed control. After a number of hours tweaking the setup on site, [Dylan] live-streamed his Farming Simulator PC play session (video below) with the tractor itself left off for obvious reasons. Without tractor motor engaged there was no power steering, so he deserves a bit of extra credit for making it through multiple hours.
This certainly isn’t the first ridiculous controller project [Dylan] has taken on. He’s created a trombone controller to just to play Trombone Champ, a Nerf bow controller for Overwatch, and he even played through Hades using a literal pomegranate. You can watch more of [Dylan’s] custom controller projects on his Rudeism Twitch channel.
Agriculture on any scale involves many tasks that require lifting, hauling, pushing, and pulling. On many modern farms, these tasks are often done using an array of specialized (and expensive) equipment. This puts many small-scale farmers, especially those in developing countries, under significant financial pressure. These challenges led a South African engineering firm to develop the Kotonki, a low-cost hydraulically powered utility vehicle that can be customized for a wide variety of use cases. Video after the break.
The name Kotonki is derived from the Setswana phrase for a donkey kart. It is in essence a self-propelled hydraulic power pack, capable of hauling 1 ton of anything that can fit on its load bed. It comes in front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions, with each wheel individually driven by a hydraulic motor. The simple welded steel frame articulates around a double pivot, which allows it to keep all 4 wheels on the ground over any terrain. At a max speed of 10 km/h it won’t win any races, but neither would most other agricultural vehicles. The Kotonki is built mostly using off-the-shelf components and is powered by a common 12HP Honda engine. In the world of DRM agricultural equipment, this makes for simple repairs, low running costs, and easy customization for the task at hand. This can include mounting log splitters, water pumps, lifting beds, or anything else that can be driven by its hydraulic and rotary PTOs (Power Take-Off).
Over many years now we’ve covered right-to-repair stories, and among them has been a constant bête noire. The American farm machinery manufacturer John Deere whose instantly recognisable green and yellow tractors have reliably tilled the soil for over a century, have become the poster child for inappropriate use of DRM. It’s enough to make any farmer see red, but there’s a story from CNN which shows another side to manufacturer control. A Deere dealership in Melitopol, Ukraine, was looted by invading Russian forces, who took away an estimated $5m worth of farm machinery. The perfect crime perhaps, save for the Deere computer system being used to remotely disable them leaving the crooks with combine harvesters they can’t even start.
While most autonomous vehicles are meant to travel over the highway, John Deere’s new 8R tractor shown at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show will likely only traverse fields and it will do so without a human at the wheel.
The tractor is slated to be available to farmers in late 2022 and has six pairs of stereo cameras to generate a 360 degree view of obstacles. It also uses location technology, including GPS, to ensure it is where it is supposed to be with a claimed accuracy of 1 inch. You can see a video about the beast below.