Farms are hard work. Labor is scarce at harvest-time. What's a hacker/farmer to do?
(Autonomous tractor in Canada)
[Matt Reimer] is a farmer in Southwestern Manitoba, Canada. It’s grain country, and at harvest time he has a problem. An essential task when harvesting is that of the grain cart driver, piloting a tractor and grain trailer that has to constantly do the round between unloading the combine harvester and depositing the grain in a truck. It’s a thankless, unrelenting, and repetitive task, and [Matt]’s problem is that labour is difficult to find when every other farmer in the region is also hiring.
His solution was to replace the driver with a set of Arduinos and a Pixhawk autopilot controlling the tractor’s cab actuators, and running ArduPilot, DroneKit, and his own Autonomous Grain Cart software. Since a modern tractor is effectively a fly-by-wire device this is not as annoying a task as it would have been with a tractor from several decades ago, or with a car. The resulting autonomous tractor picks up the grain from his combine, but he reminds us that for now it still deposits the harvest in the truck under human control. It is still a work-in-progress with only one harvest behind it, so this project is definitely one to watch over the next few months.
Science fiction fans at the movies are ready with their favorite example of autonomous combines - the ones in the recent 2015 hit movie Interstellar.
(Autonomous combines in Interstellar)
Science fiction fans down on the farm of course recall the robomule that pulled the plough in Harry Harrison's 1965 novel Bill the Galactic Hero.
Update 02-June-2016: Take a look at another reference, the self-guided tractor from At the Bottom of a Hole (1966), by Larry Niven.