Farmer-built robot tractor catches readers’ attention

Every once in a while you just know a story is going to be well received.

Such was the case when I received an email from WP managing editor Michael Raine a couple weeks ago.

Raine is normally a pretty cool customer, part and parcel — I imagine — of the many responsibilities he shoulders here at WP world HQ. But this email had a sense of urgency about it, a “this should get the web talking” comment and some unusually large font instructions that, basically, amounted to “get this live, now!”

Raine had found a Killarney, Manitoba farmer named Matt Reimer. Reimer had created an autonomous tractor that could pull his grain cart, and receive grain from his combine on the fly. Reimer had created a different kind of drone than we’re used to talking about these days, but every bit as fascinating nonetheless.

“My folks gave me some money at Christmas and rather than put it into the grocery budget, I thought we should do something fun with it this year — robotics,” Reimer told Raine.

“Steering is provided by an Outback, hydraulic control valve, about $1,000, making it the most expensive part of the unit.”

And Reimer took a free online class from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn a little computer programming, which he used to help with the project.

Reimer estimates the unit will save him $5,000 in labour this fall alone. Even better, for our purposes, Reimer had video of his creation in action.

To say the story “took off” online would be an understatement. The story blasted into the ether like the space shuttle on steroids. The story created a mountain in the midst of our normal web traffic metrics.

You’ve seen those heart monitors on TV that show the squiggly line of heart activity punctuated by the monstrous spike that is the actual heartbeat, right? Well this one went squiggle, squiggle, squiggle, boom!

Unlike any heartbeat, however, this “spike” in traffic lasted for more than a week.

The story reached much more than 30,000 people on the WP’s Facebook page alone, and in combination with Twitter drove a pile of people to the WP website.

One Facebook reader named Clayton Thiessen had a unique, and (to me) somewhat surprising, take on Reimer’s creation:

“Thousands of people look for work and we’re going to, instead of helping out needy families with a seasonal opportunity, save five grand on labour?! I find this heartbreaking.”

Another Facebook reader, Alistair Pethick, was quick to reply:

“Where are these thousands of people? Not in western Manitoba or eastern Saskatchewan. The local Tim Horton’s is 21 staff short and has to close drive thru and reduce hours. Every business in town is hiring, every farm could use at least one more hired hand. There is a huge lack of labour in the rural areas.”

Raine, a farmer himself in addition to his duties here at the WP, happened to be watching this Facebook exchange and replied:

“There are limited dollars available for labour. The time frame requirement for skilled workers is very short in prairie ag, too short to create jobs that are meaningful. We are part of a worldwide ag complex, with commodities priced globally and have few choices but to be efficient.”

Facebook reader Nolan Fuller may have summed it up best:

“Who cares about the ‘thousands’ of people looking for work? If I can save money, you can bet your best pair of panties I’m gonna replace a human with a robot.”

And we’d like to report about it when you do, Nolan!

You can find the original robot tractor story, with video of it in action, here.


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