MU professor's smartphone app could prevent injury, death from tractor rollover accidents

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | 7:41 p.m. CDT; updated 5:25 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 9, 2013

COLUMBIA — MU assistant professor Bulent Koc witnessed a tractor rollover for the first time when he was 8 years old in a village in Turkey, where he lived at the time.

A female operator was driving a tractor down a hill when the machine became unstable and rolled. Years later, a former colleague of Koc’s rescued his daughter from a pond near their home after her riding lawnmower tipped and left her pinned beneath the machine.

Rollover accidents like these never left Koc’s mind over the course of his career as an assistant professor of agriculture systems management, and safety education has remained important to him.

For the past year and a half, he researched and developed an app for smartphones to prevent accidents and alert emergency responders to the scene of a rollover before victims suffer any serious injuries or death. The application, called Vehicle Rollover Prevention Education Training Emergency Reporting System, uses GPS signals and sensors within a smartphone to alert emergency responders and family members of a rollover.

The app does two things: It provides a warning to machine operators about potential risk of rollover or instability of the machine and it automatically alerts emergency contacts if a rollover does occur.

Tractor rollovers accounted for 2,165 fatalities between 1992 and 2001 and remain the single greatest cause of death for farmers annually, according to figures from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

“The goal of this app is ultimately to save lives,” Koc said. “Tractors are the main source of power for agricultural production and they are often used on uneven terrains with varying slopes and ground conditions." 

To lessen the potential for false alarms, app users can input a family member’s contact information, including name and phone number or email address and can either choose to have the application alert emergency responders or family first. In the case of a rollover accident, users of the app will not have to perform any task to send the alert; it will be detected and done automatically. The alert will include GPS coordinates and a map of the scene of the accident.

The application can also be used on machines like snowmobiles, riding lawnmowers and military and construction vehicles, Koc said.

The system can be set up in two ways, either by utilizing the smartphone's sensors or by mounting external sensors to the machine. Although the app requires Internet access to allow email message alerts to be sent, GPS location services will continue to work in rural areas without Internet and send messages by phone if there is cellphone coverage.

“The key thing here is detecting the accident and transmitting emergency messages via email and phone,” Koc said.

The app was initially designed to help students in Koc's Agriculture Equipment and Machinery classes understand tractor stability and rollover possibilities. Last year, Koc and his colleagues began discussing the potential to use the application for purposes outside the classroom.

Koc began testing the app on a remote-controlled, small-sized tractor last spring. Further testing on a full-size John Deere 2040 tractor model will take place this month at the Bradford Research Center near Columbia, Koc said. Once testing has been completed, Koc hopes to find an industry partner to help market the app to the public. 

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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