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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Spider: the future of farming

It's a hulking, snarling machine. It's taller than a man and towers over the fields before it. It also communicates with both satellites and computers. Though it may sound intimidating, this mechanical beast isn't part of a science-fiction novel. It's real, and it's actually designed to protect the environment while saving farmers money.

The Spider Tractor still in the testing phase as seen outside NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. (NMSU photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The Spider is a prototype tractor being tested at New Mexico State University. It's not the first ever built, but its infrared cameras, global positioning system, variable rate controller and computer technology certainly make it one of the most advanced.

Spider Tractor

"I think this is going to be the next advancement in agriculture technology," said Tracey Carrillo, a senior research specialist at NMSU's Agriculture Experiment Station in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "Plus, farmers who use the Spider could save hundreds of dollars per acre."

To most, the tractor looks similar to others. What makes the Spider different is its ability to "see" what it's doing with three infrared cameras mounted in the front. A GPS system also tells the tractor exactly where it is.

The infrared cameras mounted on the front of the Spider measure the reflectance of light off of plants in the field and tell a computer their condition. If a plant's leaves are too yellow, it needs more nitrogen. If the leaves are green, the plant is fine. These differences may be too subtle for the human eye to notice. The computer then sends a signal to the variable rate controller to adjust the application rate of granular nitrogen. In layman's terms, the tractor knows to spray only the plants in need.

Conventionally, if crops needed a fertilizer like nitrogen, or any other application, farmers would have to apply a uniform amount over the entire area. This means blanketing the whole field whether every plant needed it or not. This leads to wasted resources.

The fertilizer applicator on the Spider can be adjusted to deliver almost any chemical used in agriculture, but right now the focus is solely on granular nitrogen. "So far it's the only tractor able to deliver a variable rate of nitrogen in a solid form for cotton," said Carrillo.

Carrillo believes by targeting only plants in need of treatment, the delivery system could cut the use of nitrogen on crops by half. "That translates into direct and indirect savings of $200 to $600 per acre for the farmer," said Carrillo.

Cutting the use of nitrogen also helps the environment. Nitrates are derived from nitrogen and are a natural part of the environment, but too many nitrates can be harmful to humans and contaminate drinking water.

"Past research has also shown excessive nitrogen leads to increased pest insect populations," Carrillo said. "Too many pest insects translate into an additional cost for the grower in the form of more frequent insecticide applications."

"Optimizing nitrogen in cotton also limits the amount of growth regulators needed, and that's another savings for the grower," said Carrillo. "It may even reduce the amount of defoliants used by forcing the cotton to drop its leaves sooner so farmers can harvest the lint."

The Spider cuts down on other expenses too. "With less nitrogen in fields, crops won't need as much water to absorb nutrients through their roots," he said.

Previously, researchers tried to use satellite technology to evaluate plant fitness and nitrogen deficiency, but there was a lag in processing the data. By the time the results of a satellite scan got to the user, the needs of the crops had changed. The infrared cameras are more accurate and the data they collect is in real time, said Carrillo.

Satellites are still used by this system, but in a different way. A GPS on the tractor uses satellites to plot what the infrared cameras "see" every two feet. Later, the information can be mapped and a farmer can see which parts of his field are stressed and which parts are healthy. This also lets the farmer know if certain issues such as soil quality, pest insect damage or disease need to be addressed.

Additionally, a vacuum on the front of the tractor is used to collect insect samples as the tractor moves along the rows of crops. Later, scientists can look at the samples to see whether or not the field has a healthy, stable balance of predator and prey insects. A low predator/prey ratio lets a grower know the beneficial insects may not be able to control pest insects, thus requiring intervention.

The applicator can be used with almost any kind of crop. A similar tractor is being tested in Oklahoma for use on wheat and corn. Carrillo wants his machine to focus on cotton. "It's one of the most widely grown crops in southern New Mexico, yet it's not being addressed by this kind of tractor," he said.

The Spider is still in the testing phase. Carrillo helped design this particular version, built by the West Texas Lee Co. He credits others in the NMSU Spider development team, including Joe Ellington, Jeff Drake, Jill McCauley, Justin Trevino and Savannah Kenney.

Carrillo had hoped to evaluate its performance with several different growers in the Mesilla Valley this past summer, but heavy rains hampered their plans. He hopes to explore its use in chile and onions next year with several different farmers.

Once the tractor is perfected, the next step will be to commercialize it. Carrillo sees the tractor being very popular if he's able to show farmers the benefit of using advanced technology in an age old-practice.