Michael OConnor, 33
Designed an automated tractor steering system that is saving farmers bushels of money
As Michael O’Connor was completing his Stanford University PhD in aeronautics and astronautics, he realized that the Global Positioning System so central to his studies could save farmers millions. O’Connor designed a system that could guide a tractor, combine, or harvester to within three centimeters of a specified path. Upon graduating, he cofounded IntegriNautics in Menlo Park, CA, to commercialize it. The system consists of a small box installed in a tractor cab to control its steering mechanism, plus a touch screen, antenna, and GPS instrumentation. Once the farmer programs the path on the screen, the setup allows for hands-free operation that is more accurate than manual steering- and more economical, since even slight deviations can cost thousands of dollars in wasted fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides over many hectares. Although the farmer has to sit in the cab to watch for unpredictable obstacles, like animals, he can do other work while there. The system also allows operation during fog or at night. O’Connor has sold more than 400 of the $45,000 AutoFarm units. “Half the new tractors in the U.S. will have this technology within ten years,” says Stanford professor Brad Parkinson, a GPS pioneer who supervised O’Connor’s thesis.