PERHAPS NO SINGLE development in the history of agriculture has had a greater influence than the Charter Gasoline Engine Company’s 1887 introduction of the “gasoline traction engine.” But from its earliest days this plowing, tilling, hauling workhorse of farm and field — the “tractor,” as we call it now — has been both a blessing and curse to those who work the land: A blessing in that it made large-scale food production possible; a curse in that, for decades, tractor rollover accidents have killed more farmers than any other work-related cause.
In recent years manufacturers have used modern technology to construct tractors that are more stable and have better rollover protections for operators. But with millions of older models still in service, says Bulent Koc, assistant professor of agricultural systems management at MU, vast numbers of farmers remain at risk.
Koc and his research assistant Bo Liu are studying ways to mitigate the menace of roll-overs, especially the high rates of post-rollover deaths. One promising approach involves a contemporary technology that even the oldest machine is likely to have on board: the smartphone in the operator’s pocket.
Koc and Liu have developed an application, the Vehicle Rollover Prevention Education Training Emergency Reporting System, VRPETERS, that uses phones’ sensors and GPS capability to detect rollovers. When activated, the app sends an automatic emergency e-mail and phone message with the coordinates of the accident location to family or emergency responders.
“More and more farmers are using their smartphones to monitor weather or calculate production inputs while operating machinery,” says Koc. “Since they already have their phones with them, installing VRPETERS could help save lives.”
The researchers also designed a second application to work in conjunction with VRPETERS, a sensor that, when attached to the tractor, calculates stability characteristics and provides a warning to drivers when the tractor approaches its rollover point.
“Many farmers think they can jump out of their tractors in the event of a rollover, but this isn’t the case usually,” Koc said. “Side rollovers can occur in just three-quarters of a second and most people need a second or more to react to an event. VRPETERS can benefit farmers when a rollover occurs because they often can’t reach their phones to make an emergency call.”
Initial testing of VRPETERS was done using a remote-controlled model tractor. When tested on a standard tractor, Koc and Liu say, they will look for an industry partner to bring it to market.