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Tech Takes the Wheel

December 17, 2011
By: Margy Eckelkamp, Director of Content Development, Machinery Pete
KinzeCart (2)
With planting and harvest applications, the Kinze Autonomy Project puts tractors in the field without an operator behind the wheel.   

Automation, wireless data transfer and new power systems are transforming farm machinery

Computers, satellites and electronics are dramatically changing the farm equipment industry. From the engineering process to the manufacturing line to farm-ready machines, the rapid advances in technology are driving one of the biggest machinery evolutions.

Ten years ago, did you think tractors could drive themselves without anyone in the cab? Automated steering systems have progressed from the field testing stage to factory-installed—and today, multiple companies have demonstrated operatorless tractor systems.

Precision agriculture is now an industry in and of itself, with a range of on-farm systems. From aftermarket options to machine-specific systems from OEM companies, farmers can use a single integrated display for planting, harvesting and everything in between.

As manufacturers adopt the ISOBUS 11783 standard, farmers have more choices in how they manage field operations. The ISOBUS standard provides universal communication so that displays are color-blind to the type of implement they control and the brand of tractor they’re paired with.

No driver necessary. Several ag equipment companies have introduced their projects that remove a person from the driver’s seat. Machinery automation reduces labor needs or the skill of labor necessary.

In July, Kinze Manufacturing unveiled the Kinze Autonomy Project, a partnership with Jaybridge Robotics, by demonstrating a tractor and grain cart system that does not need an operator behind the wheel. The company has also gone to the field with an autonomous tractor and planter setup.

"This project set out to bring autonomy to the row crop grower for planting, application and harvest," says Brian McKown, Kinze’s chief operating officer and Autonomy Project manager. "The technologies that make this system possible are already in place: RTK GPS; machine automation, such as row clutch shutoff; and sensing technology."

In the harvest application, the Kinze system syncs the tractor and grain cart with the combine. Using the Kinze Integra monitor in the combine, the tractor finds the combine in the field, pulls adjacent to the combine for unloading, follows the combine’s path of travel until the cart is full and then returns to the field’s pre-set "staging area."

For planting, GPS is used to set field boundaries for the planter and tractor, and then the system calculates the planting map to follow. The system can be programmed with known field obstacles, and the optical sensors will detect any immediate obstacles.

The harvest and planting demonstrations used a John Deere 8430 tractor; Kinze plans to extend the system’s compatibility to include many brands and models of tractors, sprayers and other machinery.

Fendt GuideConnect Einsatzbild
Like a game of follow the leader, the Fendt GuideConnect system allows the lead tractor to control the second tractor’s operation in the field.
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With the push of a button, John Deere’s Machine Sync matches the path of the grain cart and tractor to that of the combine’s for hands-off operation.

Fendt recently introduced its version of an automated tractor system at Agritechnica 2011. GuideConnect allows one tractor to follow another’s path through the field. With radio connections and GPS signals, the tractors can sync their positions in real time. The driver in the lead tractor controls the secondary machine’s functions. The concept allows two tractors to work simultaneously in the field and potentially replace one bigger tractor.

Machine to machine. While autonomous systems aren’t available to farmers just yet, the concept of machine connectivity is a reality.

John Deere’s Machine Sync, which automates equipment during harvest and provides mechanical information, location and operational status, will be available in early 2012. When you press "engage," the tractor and grain cart’s position and groundspeed become a hands-off operation.

"Harvest is like a square dance—there are a lot of people involved, there are lots of steps and the music only gets faster," says John Deere’s Mark Brokaw. "You set a home point, and the machine will return there every time. The grain cart drivers can see everyone in the network, and the combines and tractors communicate when it’s time to load."

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Mid-December 2011

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