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Quest for autonomous tractor began decades ago

Pioneering ag innovators had their eyes on autonomous tractors decades before modern concept vehicles were built.

Curt Arens

November 11, 2021

3 Min Read
A “steering-wheel-free” autonomous concept vehicle from Case IH
WHERE’S THE WHEEL? This “steering-wheel-free” autonomous concept vehicle from Case IH was unveiled at Farm Progress Show in 2016 and was also displayed at Husker Harvest Days that same fall.Curt Arens

In the fall of 2016, Case IH and New Holland both introduced driverless tractors at Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, and at Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island, Neb.

There was much talk and fanfare about the arrival of these concept vehicles, and the implications of their development to the agriculture industry. Six years later, with even more manufacturers such as John Deere, Fendt and Autonomous Tractor Corp. joining the group of manufacturers working on autonomy, GPS guidance and wireless technology continue to be crucial in development.

But the concept of a tractor “driving” itself has been around for a long time, decades before GPS and wireless.

Marcus Cain, the Dawes County, Neb., farmer who invented a tiller-packer-drill machine and a tank retriever tractor, also toyed with the idea of autonomy in farm equipment. It is said that the cupola in Cain’s house on his farmstead south of Chadron, which looks much like a tower for an air traffic controller, was built so he could remotely control his tractors and farm equipment.

Inventing and farming in Dawes County from the 1920s through the 1960s, Cain never figured out the technology to make it come to fruition, but he certainly thought about it and worked on the concepts.

In 1940, Frank W. Andrew invented a driverless tractor system that was comprised of a barrel or fixed wheel in the center of the field, and it would wind a cable that was attached to the steering arm of the front of the tractor.

But two decades before Andrew came up with his design, a 20-year-old Nebraskan, whose father owned a blacksmith shop, developed and patented an automatic tractor guide that would lead a steel-wheeled tractor in concentric circles around a field.

Zybach’s first patent

That young inventor was none other than Frank Zybach, the man known today as the father of the center pivot. It is said that Zybach came up with the idea of hands-off tractor driving when he was plowing a field.

As he prepared to plant his crop, it occurred to him that plants grew just as well in crooked rows as straight ones. He decided to plow his field in circles. Like Andrew, Zybach began in the middle of the field, plowed a tight spiral, and then got the front wheel of the tractor down in the furrow and let go of the steering wheel.

The tractor would continue plowing those circles in larger and larger spirals until it ran out of fuel or the wheel came out of the furrow. That’s why he patented the automatic tractor wheel guide to keep the wheel of the tractor going in concentric circles around the field.

There was something about circles that clicked with Zybach, and he eventually figured out a way to irrigate in circles with an invention we know today as the center pivot.

Cain, Zybach and Andrew were all ahead of their time. GPS and wireless tech weren’t around during their days of inventing, but engineers of today must tip their hats to those early pioneers of the concept of autonomy and tractors.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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