[FoRK] "Super Tuesday" only "semi-great," Texans claim

Stephen D. Williams <sdw at lig.net> on Wed Feb 6 13:29:06 PST 2008

Adam L Beberg wrote:
> Stephen D. Williams wrote on 2/6/2008 9:54 AM:
>> I think he is too young for that.
>> And he thinks for himself apparently.  And he's capable of it.  (Sad 
>> that I have to add that qualifier.)
> Bullshit. Obama and Clinton vote almost identically, both take money 
> from the same big companies, and are both the usual rich white men, so 
> nothing will change.
> McCain can kick Clinton's ass in an election because every republican 
> in the country 18-110 will run/walk/crawl/claw their way to the pools 
> in November to vote against Clinton. Obama can beat McCain because 
> everyone is basically OK with him since he won't
Why is that?  I don't understand their vitriol.  I almost think it's 
because she didn't leave Bill.
> change anything. So the Dems have the obvious choice to make there. 
> Wall street is happy with any of them, and if any tax schenanigans get 
> pulled (like making the rich or companies pay taxes), rich people are 
> mobile and ready to bug out. The big investing gurus are already 
> telling the rich to stockpile food, supplies, and weapons as well as 
> owning property elsewhere in their newsletters.
> Ron Paul is the only one left in the election that doesn't have his 
> head up the corporate ass, or understands international issues, or the 
> economy, or the constitution, but he's not doing so great.
> The American economy is done (OK too obvious), looks like America is 
> going to follow (not obvious to everyone yet).
Perhaps.  Not likely though.  I see a whole series of booms, easily lead 
by US firms / innovation / infrastructure / market that could probably 
pull us/US out of anything.  Perhaps you see that as just postponing the 
inevitable death spiral, however it is more likely an infinite series, 
as it has been for a little while now.

For instance, noticed not 5 minutes ago:
An obvious follow on from the recent Darpa Challenges:
Deere Takes Next Step Toward Driverless Tractor
Operatorless tractors aren’t here yet, but a new breed of automated 
steering systems is bringing ag manufacturers closer to the driverless dream

Charles J. Murray, Senior Technical Editor -- Design News, February 4, 2008

In the labs of the world’s biggest farming equipment manufacturers, 
engineers are working on a “killer app” that could one day rival the ox, 
the reaper and the modern-day combine in historical significance.

That killer app — an automated tractor — is already capable of turning, 
shifting gears and seeing through darkness and dust. It can follow a 
crop line with sub-inch precision in moonlight, can make decisions to 
raise and lower heavy farming implements on its own and can save 
thousands of hours and countless dollars for farmers.

And it may one day be capable of doing its job without need of an operator.

“Everybody in our market has an eye on this as the end game,” says Aaron 
Senneff, manager of hardware and systems engineering for John Deere 
Agricultural Management Solutions. “Autonomous tractors — ones that 
operate without a human in the loop — are definitely what we’re all 
trying to do. It’s the next great frontier for the ag equipment market.”

Deere, which will release its iTEC Pro automated guidance product this 
spring, has been a leader in development of autonomous technology. But 
it’s not alone. Case IH and New Holland have teamed with Trimble, an 
expert in GPS and optics, to develop automated tractor guidance systems, 
as well.

“This has huge implications for farmers,” says Michael Boehlje, 
professor in the Dept. of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University’s 
Center for Food and Agricultural Business. “It profoundly increases the 
number of acres that can be done using the same equipment.”

To be sure, no one has developed a completely autonomous tractor yet. 
Operators are still needed, mainly for safety reasons. Engineers fear 
today’s sensing technologies aren’t reliable enough to ensure an 
autonomous tractor will stop if a child runs in front of it.

But the new breed of self-guided tractors can do virtually everything 
else. They can precisely follow a line of crops, turn around at the end 
of the field and keep doing it for hours on end.

“The operators are there just to be aware of what’s going on around them 
and act accordingly,” Senneff says. “Beyond that, there is very little 
for them to do.”

Overcoming Overlap

The question — even among many career farmers — is why do it? Why put an 
automatic guidance system on a tractor when you’re perfectly capable of 
driving a straight line without help?

Equipment builders, of course, have the answer. “If you’re doing it 
day-in and day-out, at night and under all sorts of weather conditions 
and field conditions, fatigue starts to take its toll, no matter how 
good an operator you are,” says Barry Nelson, a spokesman for Deere. 
“But if you have the satellite to keep you in line, it doesn’t matter if 
it’s nighttime or the conditions are dusty or if the crop is overlapping 
the row. You can still get more work done in less time.”

Indeed, agricultural industry experts cite so-called “overlap” as a key 
problem for farmers. Studies show that when driving a tractor from row 
to row, operators often overlap the last row by an average of 10 
percent. That means they use 10 percent more fertilizer and chemicals 
and they do 10 percent more work.

“Whether you are spraying or planting, you can get a significant amount 
of overlap because the biggest error is to leave ground uncovered, 
rather than double-covered,” says Boehlje of Purdue.

For that reason, ag equipment makers began trying satellite-based global 
positioning systems (GPS) shortly after the technology hit the general 
market in the 1990s. They linked the GPS units to dashboard-mounted 
displays and steering gears, usually with good results. New Holland 
worked with Trimble to develop its version, known as Intellisteer, while 
Deere rolled out GreenStar Auto Trac.

Global positioning clearly helped farmers by enabling them to precisely 
follow designated rows, sometimes at a resolution of less than an inch. 
In some cases, manufacturers accomplished that by showing the crop lines 
on the displays and allowing operators to manually follow them. In other 
cases, suppliers tied the GPS to the steering system, enabling the 
steering to automatically stay on course.

But Deere’s iTEC Pro, due out this spring, takes the process a step 
farther. It employs a series of controllers, linked by a CAN (controller 
area network) bus operating at 250 Kbits/sec. While the operator drives 
the tractor, the network enables the controllers to “talk” to one 
another and therefore share information on where the tractor is and 
where it should be. At the same time, iTEC’s display controller 
communicates with the tractor’s electronic control unit (TECU), which, 
in turn, sends messages to the vehicle’s hitch, transmission, steering 
system and selective control valves (SCV). In that way, the tractor 
controls its own ground speed and steering, as well as its ability to 
raise and lower various implements, such as planters and sprayers.

The process of decision-making starts with the John Deere StarFire GPS 
receiver, which is located on the roof of the cab. Built by a Fargo, 
ND-based Deere subsidiary known as Phoenix International, the receiver 
uses a satellite-based network maintained by NavCom Technology, Inc., 
also a Deere subsidiary. By communicating with the GPS satellite, the 
receiver determines where the tractor is. It then sends a message to the 
display controller — the main brain of the system — which houses a map 
of the farmer’s field. By comparing that map to the actual location of 
the tractor, the display controller determines whether course correction 
is needed.

“It does the basic math comparisons between where it is and where it 
should be,” Senneff explains. “Then it determines, ‘Am I too far left? 
Am I too far right?’”

If it’s too far in either direction, the display controller can signal 
the TECU, which talks to the steering, hitch, SCV and transmission. In 
effect, it closes the data loop by actuating the electro-hydraulic 
system that re-orients the tractor’s wheels to the left or right. To 
correct its course, it sends a signal to a hydraulic steering valve, 
which pressurizes hydraulic cylinders (from Deere’s Cylinder Div.) on 
either side of the front wheels, thus turning the tractor in the desired 

ITEC Pro’s real feat, however, is its use of its software smarts to lift 
its implements and perform a U-turn when it reaches the so-called 
“headlands.” The headlands — the open area at the end of the crop rows — 
have up to now been the province of the driver’s manual abilities. With 
iTEC Pro, however, that changes. Using the operator’s stored map and GPS 
data, it calculates when it’s reaching the end of a row. Then it 
communicates with the TECU, telling the transmission to slow the vehicle 
and ordering the hitch or SCV controls to lift whatever implements it’s 
pulling. When it reaches the headlands, it executes a lightbulb-shaped 
U-turn, much like a car turning around in a parking lot. Finally, it 
re-orients itself, lowers the implement and moves on to the next row.

Although Deere engineers won’t give details on the processing power 
that’s needed to make all of that happen, they do admit it’s 
considerably more than their tractors used previously.

“The processing power in a GreenStar display is equivalent to what you’d 
find on your desktop,” Senneff says. “There’s a great deal of intensive 
computation needed to make a system like this work.”

Pursuit of Autonomy

With systems such as the iTEC Pro, experts say the results can be 
astounding. Because GPS is not dependent on daylight, farmers are 
suddenly able to work at night, sometimes keeping their machines in use 
for most of the day.

“Potato farmers can schedule their machines for 22 hours a day, allowing 
two hours a day for maintenance,” says Boehlje of Purdue. “That couldn’t 
have been done in the past. Even with the best lighting systems, they 
couldn’t operate their equipment in the dark.”

Moreover, the ability to reduce overlap is seen as a boon for farmers. 
Assuming 10 percent overlap in a manual application, the automated 
systems can eliminate every 10th pass. “It’s not just a matter of 
physical work,” Boehlje says. “If you’re spraying chemicals, you’re 
saving money. That’s why GPS has been so dominant in spraying applications.”

Operatorless tractors, however, are another matter. For now, experts say 
such tractors could be used in fleets of three, with an operator in the 
front machine and two driverless vehicles on the wings. Some researchers 
have experimented with such fleets in South America, but the technique 
has not spread to the agricultural industry in any meaningful way. There 
are also reports of a 40-acre alfalfa field in California being 
harvested by a lone operatorless tractor, but farmers are understandably 
reluctant to make broader use of the technology.

“There’s technology out there that can enable driverless operation,” 
Senneff says. “But the big question is, how good and reliable will that 
technology be? Then there’s a separate question: How reliable will it 
have to be before customers will accept it?”

History suggests such barriers will fall in time. And acceptance of GPS 
has already begun.

“People started by adopting manual guidance, then they adopted automatic 
steering and soon they’ll be accepting technologies like the iTEC Pro,” 
Senneff says. “There’s no doubt there will be a day when they will adopt 
autonomous tractors, as well.”


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