16 February 2015

Japan tests new satellite on robotic tractors in Riverina

Around the world, manufacturers, engineers and researchers are now trying to turn that into a reality.

In Japan, they've designed a self-steering robotic tractor which can sow, plough and spray crops.

An advanced positioning signal is transmitted from Japan's Quasi-Zenith Satellite System to control the tractor's movements.

The Japanese Government is funding trials to test the tractor on crops at Rice Research Australia near Jerilderie in south-west New South Wales.

Engineering firm Hitachi Zosen, machine manufacturer Yanmar, Hokkaido University and several other Australian universities are working together on the project.

Phil Collier, research director with Australia's Co-operative Research Centre for Spatial Information, hopes the technology can help farmers run their equipment with more accuracy.

"The satellites in the sky determine the position of the tractor in a global frame of reference," he said.

"The additional information that comes from the QZSS Satellites brings the precision down from several metres to two centimetres.

"The whole objective is to bring down the precision to a reliable level and a consistent level to allow that tractor to navigate its way down the rows of crops so things aren't getting run over."

If the trials prove successful, people in rural and remote Australia will have access to precise positioning, without having to rely on the mobile network.

At the moment, the robotic tractor is being tested on rice crops and paddocks late at night and into the early hours of the morning, when the satellite is passing over Australia.

The boundary of the field, the tractor's path and the start and end point of where it can turn are all programmed on a computer inside its cab.

This is to ensure the tractor doesn't veer off into a fence or an irrigation channel.

The CRC's Phil Collier says the technology's application won't be limited to precision farming.

"From mining to automated guidance of cars, anything where there's a level of machine automation required that's outside, then this technology has got that ability to solve that problem.

"My prediction, if I can be so bold, is that this sort of technology will move from sophisticated installations in machines like this to mobile phones in due course and people will have it in their back pocket."

The Japanese Government intends to deploy another three satellites in the near future, which will give Australia 24 hour coverage of the advanced positioning signals, once the technology is commercialised.

Audio: Phil Collier from the CRC for Spatial Information explains how Japan's satellite system works (ABC Rural)

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