For several years, if you had taken a look at the South Farms at the University of Illinois, you might have seen a tractor driving itself. Cameras mounted on the tractor use computer vision to steer the machine. Now, this “smart” tractor is about to become even more intelligent.

University of Illinois researchers are developing an automatic diagnostic system that will be able to "hear" that ping in the engine telling you something is wrong. In addition, they are gearing up to use their automatic guidance system to judge the terrain for rollover prevention.

Sound too good to be true? Qin Zhang, an agricultural and biological engineer at the U of I, is conducting research to develop intelligent farm machinery, a concept he has dubbed "New Iron."

"'Old Iron' is the mechanical system that farmers have used for decades," says Zhang. "But agriculture today relies heavily on computer technology. Computers on tractors make them more productive, more efficient. Now we have a new challenge. Is it possible to make them more intelligent?"

One way to boost a tractor's I.Q. is with what Zhang calls an "intelligent health monitoring system."

"Ten years ago, a very experienced mechanic could listen to your car to figure out the problem," says Zhang. "Today, everyone uses computers to diagnose machinery. We teach the computer to listen to the noise or to analyze major surface parameters to see if the machine is healthy."

In research conducted with an industry partner, Zhang found that the hydraulic pump on a tractor lasted over 12,000 hours before failure. To repair the pump after failure cost more than $14,000. When the part was replaced (on a schedule-based maintenance program) at 7,000 hours, the cost was only $2,200.

"If the life is 12,000 hours, and we replace it at 7,000 hours, we save a lot of money by avoiding expensive repairs, but we lose almost 5,000 hours of life," says Zhang. "With this technology, we will monitor the circuits better and use data processing technology to dip into the deep information. If we can find the point in the life of a component that is close to failure, but not yet failed, we could reduce the cost of repair even more." Farm safety is another area of research that Zhang believes can benefit from "New Iron" technology.

Today's tractors have a feature called ROPS (Roll Over Protection Structure) that works to protect the operator when the tractor rolls over. "But that’s a passive system," says Zhang, "like an air bag in a car. When you have an accident it protects you, but it cannot eliminate the accident."

Zhang is beginning work on a new system, called AROPS, or Active Roll Over Prevention System. AROPS uses automatic guidance to predict the relative slope change to a tractor, then evaluate the situation and tell the driver the appropriate action to take.

Perhaps the best news about all this technology, says Zhang, is the fact that it is 'transparent' to the farmer. "The farmer needs basic skills to operate the computer and the programs, but he doesn't have to understand the technology. How many of us understand how our cell phones work? We don't. We just use them."