Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Radio Guides the Plow

In 1932 Popular science ran an article foretelling the use of radio to control plows. The images were rudimentary with long wire aerials slung high over the chassis the full length of the vehicle. Maybe it wasn't elegant, but it was the beginning of an idea. It described the experiment this way:
"Recently, J. J. Lynch, of Miles City, Mont., demonstrated his radio-controlled tractor before 200 electrical experts and business men. Steered from a closed car traveling behind, it plowed around a thirty-acre field. Radio relays beneath the empty driver’s seat operated it in response to a radio transmitter in the control car."
In 1929 the Japanese were looking at radio control. A Japanese army major named Nagayama rebuilt some Fordson tractors for experimental remote control by radio waves. These weren't meant for farming. This was a tank. It was intended for mine clearing and mine laying. It was able to move up to 5 mph.

I found another reference in to the 1934 World's fair in Chicago where a "robot plow" was exhibited which could be started and steered remotely. The International Harvester Company held daily demonstrations of the driverless, radio-controlled McCormick-Deering tractor in a field outside the the Agriculture building. When I read it I assumed the closest thing we had to remote controlled tractors was the little John Deere RC cars. I was way off.As recently as 2004 The International Journal of Vehicle Design publishes an article on the refurbishing of a Ford model 4600 agricultural tractor for remote control operation. The abstract for the article detailed the following:
"Modifications to the tractor involved installing a protective framework, electrical actuators for fuel, brake, clutch, and steering controls, and a radio link for remote operation. The tractor has been used to complete over 30 total side and back upset tests, with no failures of the remote control system."
So the idea is still simmering. But the idea has probably run it's full life-span. It began as science-fiction, and has now become science kitsch. Large-scale agribusinesses have moved past radio-control to GPS controlled plowing with a number of competing systems all in use presently including the IntegriNautics AutoFarm GPS 5001 AutoSteer System. Doesn't that sound like something from the Jetsons?