There’s a remote control tractor working on a farm in Co Clare and it’s definitely not a toy. Michael Shannon from Milltown Malbay in West Clare has rebuilt a 1983 Massey Ferguson MF250 tractor to operate as a full-size remote control tractor.
Last week, I called to Michael’s yard to see the tractor in action and everything about it is very impressive. The tractor can perform all the functions of a normal 40hp MF250, and all by remote control. The tractor can also be controlled by a GPS system without using the handheld control, by using positioning data from digital field maps. And lastly, it can be driven like a normal tractor with a human in the seat!
Michael has years of experience as a tractor dealer, mechanic, electronics expert and pilot. With the support of his son Tony, who has similar skills, they have developed what is a truly impressive machine.
They are totally comfortable driving the tractor around the fields and in and out of their farmyard. They are equally confident about the opportunities to expand what they have learned into similar systems for bigger tractors.
When Michael Shannon gave up his career as a tractor dealer over 10 years ago, he set about doing some of the things that he “always wanted to do”. One of the items on the to-do list was developing a full-size remote control tractor that could be functional and reliable.
In 1965, Michael went on a training course for the Ford Select-O-Matic automatic gearbox in Basildon, England and that experience remained with him. As well as that, his flying experience over many years convinced him that the technology that allowed a Garmin GPS unit to fly a small passenger plane could someday be linked to a tractor using a Select-O-Speed type system.
Modern GPS systems and the resulting field maps have allowed Michael to bring his ideas of a remote control tractor to fruition. “The changes in GPS availability over the last five years and the access to new technology have allowed me to build this tractor. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago,” said Michael.
Some years later, he succeeded, but not without trials and tribulations. He found the ideal tractor, a Massey Ferguson MF250, on a farm in Co Cork during a visit to one of his daughters and brought it home to restore it. It had a Duncan cab and was in poor condition when he bought it.
He had intended to restore it to new condition, but decided that this would be the tractor which he could use to create his dream. When he brought it home, he decided that this was the tractor for a remote control conversion.
It was fitted with wet disc brakes, a vital component, and a boosted hydraulic system and so the serious work began.
He took time to design the electrical and control circuit before the mechanical work started on the tractor. That meant drawing countless wiring diagrams and making changes until it was ready for the electronic work to begin.
That work included a full overhaul of the three-cylinder Perkins 3.152 engine, followed by similar work on the back axle and hydraulic system. He installed a re-built MF50B hydraulic torque converter behind the flywheel to allow for simple control of the forward and reverse motion. Then with some adjustments to the location of the gears, he was able to put the engine and transmission back together again.
The re-assembly was done with the electronic control of the tractor in the forefront of his mind. The wiring diagram was followed and adjusted as the work continued.
Relays were used to control solenoid valves, which in turn operated mechanical and hydraulic functions.
These included the forward and reverse motion through the reconditioned torque convertor. Other functions that were controlled include the hydraulic steering system, a hydraulic brake system that was fitted to the tractor, and operation of the PTO which was also converted to a hydraulic system, as well as full control of the three-point linkage.
The handheld control unit also controls the throttle setting. This controller was originally designed for a scale helicopter and Michael has modified it extensively to operate the tractor.
Today, Michael uses his remote control MF250 for occasional public events. The tractor spreads the fertilizer for his brother’s farm with a Vicon Vari-Spreader.
He also rolls the field in spring and has used it to operate a topper on the farm with great success.
“The remote control tractor and spreader can be programmed using the field maps to spread at 12m (30ft) widths. Once it’s set up to go, the machine will spread to the required width and then return to the gate and stop in order to be driven home by a human on the road,” said Michael.
Michael believes that his system can be scaled up to suit any tractor. “The system could be easily suited to some of the modern tractors with variable speed (CVT) transmissions and forward and reverse shuttle systems,” said Michael.
The thinking and the hard work is now done. Michael will be bringing the tractor to the Dunmore Vintage Club Show on Sunday, 3 August, where he plans to use it to cut grass with a PZ 135 two-drum rotary mower.
The remote control tractor concept has a future. Only recently I spoke with Christian Muller, head of tractor design at CNH Case New Holland and he agreed that smaller remote control tractors had more potential than larger units that are contributing to increased soil compaction damage.
Michael Shannon and his remote control Massey Ferguson MF250 are already there.