Qin Zhang
Associate Professor
Agricultural and Biological Engineering
University of Illinois

Qin Zhang gives farm equipment a brain. The mechatronics expert at the University of Illinois grew up in China on a farm, worked in a tractor factory and studied mechanical engineering in college. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in ag engineering. He speculates on the future of smart equipment.

FIN: What is mechatronics?

Zhang: Mechatronics is a combination of mechanics, electronics and information process. Basically, it is the technology for automation of equipment. The term was invented in the 1980s with the emergence of computer technology and electronics into the traditional equipment in the field. I believe it was invented by a scientist in Japan. An example of mechatronics is measuring the speed of an engine and the load and then adjusting the amount of fuel injected into it, which is called fuel injection.

Where will mechatronics take us in the future?

The newest advancements in mechatronics are on agricultural tractors with autoguidance products. Operators push a button and the tractor follows the rows. This is a revolutionary change in ag machinery.

Next, companies will introduce products that automatically operate. In probably 10 years, there will be machines that go autonomously from the garage to the field to do work and then go back to the garage when done. We've already passed the concept stage because we tested autonomous tractors on campus eight years ago. So, technologically, we have the ability to manufacture these.

What's the holdup for autonomous tractors?

The primary obstacles are legal and economic. In some states it is not legal to run a tractor without an operator. And we can build an autonomous machine for farm work, but it must be affordable. We have shown that the concept works but at a high cost because high-end components must be used. So the challenge now is to design such a tractor with low-cost components, and that is probably not the job of a university.

How do you envision autonomous tractors working on a farm?

When a full autonomous system is deployed, farmers will still manage the operation, fuel the tractors, and add fertilizer, seed and implements. I can see a fleet of machines, maybe 10, and a master tractor leading the other tractors in the field. This lead tractor will tackle the first 20 rows of the crop, and the second “slave” tractor will take the 20 rows behind. We call this a master-slave or leader-follower system. Each machine does exactly the same thing. If one stops, they all stop at the same place. That's one model.

A second model is where 10 machines are autonomous, and each works on its own as programmed. One tractor does not interact with another, but altogether they are doing the same work.

Both models have advantages and drawbacks. The master-slave is simple to operate but is not flexible and can't handle irregular situations. Everything has to be exactly the same for each tractor. For example, if there's a pump located in the middle of the field, a slave tractor will drive into it.

How will service be provided for autonomous tractors?

With autonomous technology, it is easy for a dealer to provide support because of prognostic technology, computing power on the machine, and process sensors that access the condition of the machine. Equipment breakdowns will be predicted and a signal will be sent to a dealer or service center to tell what machine will have what problem in how many hours. The system informs both the dealer and the owner to schedule maintenance.

When will we see commercial autonomous tractors?

I think the industry is looking at this but not pursuing it for the near future. Manufacturers will prepare the technology over the next 10 years but won't put a big effort into it until society is ready to move in that direction.