Earlier this week I was able to see something that will be a milestone in agriculture.
In the middle of harvest, Monmouth, Ill., farmer Rick Elliott got a call from one of the neighbors.
"He was driving by and asked me ‘Is there anyone in that grain cart tractor?!" Rick says.
But there was no cause for alarm. Elliott’s tractor was following the combine through the field, unloading on the go, without anyone sitting in the cab. His farm was one of three in western Illinois testing the Kinze Autonomous Harvest System.
See the driverless tractor in the field:
"After unveiling our project in July of 2011, we are excited to demonstrate it in the field," says Susie Veatch, vice president and Chief Marketing Officer of Kinze Manufacturing.
The Kinze Autonomous Harvest System is comprised of the combine, tractor and grain cart outfitted with sensors, ruggedized computers, and GPS sensors. The system is controlled by the combine operator using a hand-held tablet computer and eliminates the need for an operator in the tractor cab to haul the grain cart.
"The goals for this system are efficiency, productivity, and safety," says Rhett Schildroth, Kinze product manager. "Farmers are experiencing a shortage in skilled operators for the seasonal work at harvest and planting. We also know that it’s key for the system to run as safe at the end of the day as it did at the beginning."
The autonomy project started in the lab in 2009. Then it was tested on the Kinzenbaw farm up until this year, when it’s the first year the system has been tested outside of Kinze.
"Our system takes control of the tractor’s engine, transmission, steering and brakes," Schildroth explains.
Schildroth visits with Farm Journal's Pam Fretwell:
Components on the tractor include: GPS receiver, inertial measurement sensors for hills, wheel encoders, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors, radar sensors for far-reaching sensing and a camera to see what the systems sees.
The components on the combine include: an emergency stop button, GPS receiver, communication module that networks the machines, and a tablet, which is the user interface.
Basically, the system performs in four modes: follow, unload, park, idle.
In follow, the tractor and grain cart follow the combine’s path through the field. The system reads where the combine has operated and designates those areas as safe for travel. If obstacles are known in the field, the operator can indicate them on the map, or if obstacles are encountered during harvest, for example an extreme wet hole, the area can also be marked as an obstacle to be avoided.
When the combine is ready to be unloaded, the tractor and grain cart pull alongside the combine, and sensors provide real-time reaction to any adjustments made by the combine in speed and direction.
"The system is continuously scanned for obstacles in the field so that when it’s time to meet the combine it calculates a path factoring in any obstacles. If it can’t map around an obstacle, then it stops," Schildroth says. "Right now, it doesn’t run as fast as a human operator would–7 mph when following the combine; 9 mph for field travel."
To park the tractor and cart, the combine operator hits the park button and the machinery returns to designated area at the edge of the field.
In idle, the system comes to a stop wherever it is until further instruction.
"The technology is hidden from the farmer. They have the tablet and that’s all –- four buttons and an aerial view of the filed." Schildroth says. "Having it be simple means our farmers have been able to learn how to use the system in an hour and within a day it’s part of their routine."
Trained technicians installed the three systems for testing this fall, and that process took between one to two days.
Veatch explains that the company put out a call to district sales managers to find willing cooperators to test the system.
"We wanted flat ground for this initial testing and this area had good crops despite the tough growing conditions of this year," she says. "And there were three farmers within 8 miles that were willing to be part of our project."
Elliott Brothers Farms (Rick is partners with his brother Dan and other family members), Kent Armstrong and Joe Krupps were the three partners, and all of them are Kinze customers through Painter Farm Equipment.
"Ten years ago we were skeptical about GPS, automated steering, clutches on the planter, and other technologies," says Todd Painter, Painter Farm Equipment. "But those have been highly accepted by our customers. We have 80% or more of our customers using GPS technologies on their farm. Technology is here to stay, and this autonomous system is the next thing to come."
Krupps, who farms near Galesburg, Ill., says he is not quick to adopt technology on his farm and doesn’t have any autoguidance or steering systems used in his operation currently. But he says the autonomous system was easy to bring onto his farm.
"I read last winter about the concept, But I am not exactly a technology leader," he says. "The whole system surprised me–how well it worked, how they made this user friendly. It follows instructions better than some employees."
Cooperating farmer Armstrong started using automated steering systems on his farm only three years ago and says he’s impressed with how accurate the system is.
"I haven’t run any corn on the ground this harvest," he says. "The tablet gives you a countdown for how long it’ll take for the cart to travel to get to the combine, and the cart stays right with my unload auger."
The Elliott Brothers farming operation has multiple machines with GPS autoguidance and RTK steering systems, Rick reports this system easily fit into their operation.
"The system is designed the way a farmer would have done it," he says. "It’s simple to give the system the command you want in the field—four buttons, that’s it."
Elliott visits with Farm Journal's Pam Fretwell about the Kinze technology:
The tractor can be switched from autonomous to manual mode. When the tractor is in idle mode, the farmer can lower the bottom step on the tractor, which has sensors installed to automatically disengage the autonomous system. From there, the operator takes back over with control, until they exit the tractor and lift the step to re-engage the autonomous system.
In autonomous mode, before the tractor leaves its designated parking area, the lights flash and the tractor beeps and revs its engine to alert it’s about to move.
The company demonstrated on John Deere tractors but says it has designed the system to be compatible with any make of tractor or combine. Once commercially available, Kinze plans on offering kits for specific models.
For now, they’ve already designed it for a variety of harvesting conditions. For example, when cutting soybeans at an angle, the system follows the combine path and reacts in real time. Or if farming amid waterways, the system can understand tilt, and if the wheels start spinning in extreme conditions, the tractor shuts off. Also, terraces can be set as obstacles in the field.
The field testing has provided improvements to the system as well.
"The biggest improvements this year are that we added the tablet as the user interface and with adjustments to the software, we’ve improved the time it takes for the tractor’s path to be determined," Schildroth says.
Although there isn’t a project date for commercial availability of the system, Kinze is also working on applying the autonomous technology to planting applications.
"Farmers will want increased productivity, rapid return on investment, and we’ll continue to innovate around the autonomous solution," Schildroth says. "Next year we’ll have more testing."
The Autonomous Harvest System is only designed for off road use. The system will not work on any roads.