Ronald Palmer was a 23-year-old student pilot in 1975, trying to fly in a straight line over Ottawa, when he says he suddenly began thinking about tractors. He was keeping a Cessna 150 on course by homing in on radio signals from navigational beacons. But the young computer specialist had also grown up on a farm 50 km north of Regina. And he realized that a similar directional system might reduce overlapping, a common problem on huge Prairie farms when farm implements needlessly cover the same ground twice. Now, Palmer has invented a computerized system that will help farmers seed and spray their fields in precise straight lines. Said Palmer, now a professor of engineering at the University of Regina: “It will cost between $5,000 and $10,000—but on a 1,000-acre farm the system will pay for itself within three years.”
Ottawa and the Saskatchewan government have already provided $150,000 worth of research grants to develop the system. And several companies are considering investing in the manufacture of Palmer’s invention. One reason, according to Statistics Canada: the province’s 55,600 farmers spend more than $1 billion each year on fuel, pesticides and fertilizers, and Palmer estimates that widespread use of his invention would reduce overlapping—shaving as much as $100 million from this bill.
Indeed, Palmer receives about seven calls each week from farmers who want to help him test his invention. Palmer first sets up two small beacons which beam radio signals from the edge of a field to a portable receiver in the cab of a tractor. Using the signal to determine the tractor’s exact location, the operator registers the information in a computer terminal while also recording the width of the field and any obstacles (such as bushes or sloughs) to be avoided. Then the driver simply watches an arrowshaped indicator to determine which way to steer in order to remain precisely parallel to the first track. Palmer—and his prospective backers—say they are already convinced that farmers will buy the system, which should be on the market in about three years. If they are correct, computers may be as common in the cabs of $100,000 combines as air conditioning and tape decks.
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