URBANA, Ill. -- In recent years, you may have seen a tractor driving itself at the South Farms at the University of Illinois, using on-board cameras for 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," said 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," said 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."

However, Zhang believes there is a lot of data buried underneath this surface information. More advanced technology can access this information and analyze it to allow farmers to use the components of a machine as long as possible before failure.

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," said 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 is a passive system," said 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.

"An experienced operator can drive the tractor on sloped terrain and know if the tractor can pass the slope safely," said Zhang. "But what if the operator is older? He has the experience, but maybe his reaction time is slow. What if he's young? He doesn't have the experience, he just wants to drive fast."

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.

"It will say, okay, it's dangerous here, reduce your speed. Or it's extremely dangerous, you cannot pass here," said Zhang.

Perhaps the best news about all this technology, said 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."

Some of Zhang's "New Iron" technology is available now, and some is still in development. Although Zhang believes a completely computer-integrated crop production system will be in place in 10 years, he said that "as fast as technology moves, if it happens sooner, I won't be surprised."

Zhang's research is supported by the Great Lakes Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, the National Fluid Power Association and Hatch Act funds.

SOURCE: University of Illinois news release.