The Maneater

Professor develops lifesaving farming app

Tractor rollovers are the deadliest type of farming accident.

As an 8-year-old growing up in a farming village in Turkey, Bulent Koc, an assistant professor of agricultural systems engineering, watched a top-heavy tractor roll over, pinning its driver underneath. The whole accident took place in less than a second.

The event stuck with Koc. Although his childhood is now decades behind him, Koc just developed a smartphone app that can monitor tractor stability, detect rollovers and send emergency alerts to family members and first responders.

"It's one of those things that might be always in my mind," Koc said, recalling the accident. "Well maybe not always, but whenever I see a tractor that reminds me that tractors are not always stable."

Tractor rollovers are the deadliest form of farming accident, claiming about 250 lives each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Since many rollovers occur in remote areas and take just a fraction of a second, the accidents are often deadly.

Koc came up with the idea for his app, called VRPETERS, which stands for Vehicle Rollover Prevention Education Training Emergency Reporting System, from his agricultural engineering students. In one class, Koc's students build and program model tractors using the robotics program Lego Mindstorms NXT. The students compete to see which models, which are about the size of remote-controlled cars, can pull the heaviest loads. Koc noticed that the students' models worked well on level ground, but would tip on uneven terrain.

"I observed that the tractors they built were high and did not look stable," Koc said. "They worked well on a flat ground, but what happens if the surface conditions change?" 

Koc worked with his graduate assistant, Bo Liu, to develop an early version of the app. Liu, who has experience in app development, created the app and met regularly with Koc to add to and modify its features. Koc later had his students run the app to test their models on rough ground.

After finding that an early version of the app worked well and received positive feedback from colleagues at an engineering conference, Koc decided to begin testing the app on real tractors.

"Our initial test results on model tractor and my colleagues’ comments made me think, 'OK, let's try it on a bigger one,'" Koc said.

But further testing could not come without support outside MU. To test on real tractors, Koc had to ensure that they would be undamaged by the rollovers. To help fund the costs of building special cages and remote-control capabilities for the test tractors, Koc received a grant from the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health.

Koc continues to fine-tune the app as he conducts his field testing on real tractors.

"We are aiming to further test the reliability of the app," Koc said. "The current version is pretty reliable but as we find glitches with testing, we go back to the coding to fix."

Based on the preliminary success of the field testing, Koc and Liu have submitted an application to MU to seek a marketing partner for the app. Koc said farmers are increasingly using smartphones and tablets to help get their work done. Many agribusinesses have released apps to help with farming tasks, a trend Koc thinks will only grow.

"IPhones, tablet computers and android devices are becoming more common in our daily life, farmers are also using them," Koc said. "Within a few years, mobile devices will be adopted more in farm operations." 

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