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By AnnMarie Cornejo

The Cal Poly team with its winning autonomous tractor.

In a rural field in Rockville, Indiana, a tractor propels itself forward, planting corn as it goes. There is no driver in sight. On the sidelines, people watch as the latest technology and agriculture merge.

The tractor, designed by a team of students from Cal Poly’s BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department, won second place and $15,000 at the AgBOT Challenge — an annual competition held to showcase the newest technology in agriculture.

The seven-person Cal Poly team drove more than 30 hours and 2,171 miles to get there — and was determined to succeed.

“We spent two quarters transforming a 30-year-old tractor into a state-of-the-art wirelessly remote-controlled tractor,” said Caleb Fink, a graduate student studying agriculture and the team’s manager. “With a very limited budget, we used a lot of scrap metals and brainstormed innovative ways to make things happen.”

The team, consisting of bioresource and agricultural engineering majors Ryan Vyenielo, Charlie Ross, Dillon Beatty, Austin Della, Nate McCarthy, Matthew Valentine and Fink, was charged with creating an unmanned robotic device that could autonomously move through a field and plant up to four rows of seeds.

Professor Bo Liu acted as the faculty advisor to the team and Professor Mark Zohns and Lecturer Gary Weisenberger advised on the tractor’s mechanics.

Ultimately, the Cal Poly tractor planted different corn seed varieties in a straight line in two rows, turned around, and planted another two rows of seeds — all without a driver in the seat. The tractor also automatically applied fertilizers and live-streamed video from the front and rear while planting.

The Cal Poly team was one of seven teams to compete in the seeding competition — going up against other collegiate teams from Virginia Tech and Ohio State, as well as industry professionals and farmers. The first-place winner was a farmer who entered a tractor that he had used to plant more than 500 acres of corn last spring.

In the end, the resourcefulness of the Cal Poly tractor — using shop vacuums to change seed varieties, clutch actuation using tractor auxiliary hydraulics, and a smidgen of duct tape — made it a winner.

“On the expo day, people were constantly coming and checking out our tractor, complimenting us on our ingenuity,” said McCarthy. “Go figure! They appreciated our resourcefulness.”

The team’s winnings will be used to buy materials and equipment for the next competition.

“Not only was it a thrilling experience for us personally, it was great exposure for Cal Poly and a great collaborative experience for everyone involved,” said McCarthy.

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