Many farmers are swamped with all of the data they collect from yield monitors and field maps. "But if farmers have no way to use this information, it means nothing," says Qin Zhang, an agricultural engineer with the University of Illinois.

To solve the problem of data overload, U of I researchers are developing a wireless information management system that analyzes data and makes decisions automatically.

With Zhang and his colleagues' system, all of the data coming from sensors on combines or tractors are transmitted wirelessly to a central information processing center, where decisions are made. It's part of what they call "infotronics," a strategy that combines information management with the latest electronic advances.

Zhang and his fellow engineers first tested this idea on the U of I South Farms with a self-guided John Deere Gator tractor equipped with a GPS sensor and motion sensors. Using a wireless link, the tractor sent its data to an information processing center in the lab, and in a split second the tractor received commands that guided it up and down the rows.

The information processing system proved to be highly accurate in these early tests. Most of the time, the self-guided tractor was no more than 4 inches off-course and the farthest it was ever off was 8 in.

"The system works and it's in real time," Zhang says.

Although researchers first tested this system to direct a self-guided tractor through a field, Zhang says its most useful application will be for fertilizer applicators or pesticide sprayers. The information processing center would analyze the data and field maps and then automatically adjust the sprayer nozzles to vary the rate of chemical according to the needs of a specific segment of the field.

Zhang says the information processing center could be housed in a farmer's home or in a local farm service agency, which would have the resources to maintain the system. An information processing center would have much greater computing power than computers on the equipment, making it better equipped to handle all of the data.

According to Zhang, their experimental information processing center, housed in the lab, can transmit information to the tractor for a radius of two miles. But he added, "As the technology improves, it will be able to reach up to 10 miles or beyond."

He also noted that they should be able to extend the radius well beyond 10 miles by networking farmers together in a region.

Zhang is hopeful about the concept of wireless farming. "All of the technology exists," he said. What's needed now is to integrate the technology with the information. And that's precisely what Zhang and his colleagues are doing.