Driverless tractors on the radar

Image of a farmer with a robotic tractor

Rice Research Australia manager Russell Ford hosted trials to test the performance of a satellite-guided robotic tractor on his family’s property, about 20 kilometres west of Jerilderie in the southern Riverina region of NSW.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

Working its way over rice crops in New South Wales, a robotic tractor from Japan has demonstrated the potential for new satellite-guided technology in cropping operations.

Trialled at Rice Research Australia, about 20 kilometres west of Jerilderie, in February this year, the unmanned Yanmar tractor showed it can autonomously spray, sow and cultivate.

The trials also showed the satellite system used to self-steer the tractor should surpass the availability, accuracy and reliability of current GPS systems. This unmanned tractor is guided by a new, advanced satellite system launched in Japan – the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS).

The Japanese system allows satellites to pinpoint the tractor’s position within centimetres, instead of metres, in situations where Australian growers have to use the mobile phone network.

Existing autosteer guidance systems depend on real-time kinematic satellites, ground-based positioning stations and the mobile phone network.

The QZSS provides around-the-clock positioning using four satellites orbiting above Japan and Australia.

Another reported benefit of the QZSS is its ability to stream information about crops, such as canopy health and moisture content.

It can also stream data on robotic operations, such as a tractor’s fuel consumption and engine temperature.

Following the launch of the first satellite, called ‘Michibiki’, in September 2010, the Japanese Government now plans to launch another three satellites before 2018.

Over the next three years, the new satellite network is expected to provide a platform for the commercial release of the robotic Yanmar tractors in Australia.

Hosting the trials in the Riverina region, Rice Research Australia manager Russell Ford believes the technology will find its way into Australian grains operations in the coming decade.

In the first instance, the team of Japanese researchers tested the Yanmar tractor at night, when the Michibiki satellite passed over Australia.

Contributing to this research funded by the Japanese Government is Rice Research Australia, the University of Sydney, Queensland University of Technology and the University of NSW, along with engineering company Hitachi Zosen Corporation, machine manufacturer Yanmar and Hokkaido University in Japan

More information:

Russell Ford, Rice Research Australia,
0429 425 798,


Canada in Asia offers strategic lessons for Australia


Automation looms as the next technology jump

Region National, Overseas, South, North