Equipment manufacturers have been tinkering with the idea of autonomous equipment for years. The focus has been primarily on grain cart operations, one of the most difficult positions to find qualified operators. It's also one of the shortest periods of need from a labor standpoint.
Smart Ag, an Ames, Iowa, company is rolling out AutoCart, a software solution designed to solve the critical shortage of qualified labor for grain cart operation. AutoCart can be used with an operator in the grain cart tractor or autonomously. It will be compatible with any brand or combination of brands of equipment. Eventually, the company will offer software for autonomous operations of other systems such as tillage, spraying and planting.
"We are not the first people to try to automate a grain cart," said Colin Hurd, Smart Ag CEO and founder. "But the unique thing about our system is we utilize technology and navigation methods from a variety of industries, and apply that to how our grain cart navigates through the field. That makes our system a lot more robust than some of the other systems you have seen before," Hurd said.
The tractor pulling the grain cart navigates within a set of preprogrammed boundaries. The operator uploads field boundaries or draws them with a feature in the software, Hurd explained.
On the fly, the software will calculate everywhere the tractor and cart can go, and actually plans a path that, in its opinion, is the most efficient, he continued. "I think we are the only people in ag to do an automatic path-planning system that can account for any feature in the field. The AutoCart will never go anywhere the combine hasn't been," Hurd explained. "So, it won't go outside the area that has been harvested and uses that coverage area as a boundary map for its navigation."
Once the grain tank is full, the operator hits a "sync" button, which causes the tractor pulling the cart to target the combine. Depending on whether the cart approached the combine from the front or the back, the software chooses from several approaches to get itself in line with the combine's unloading auger. Once there, it matches the speed of the combine. With buttons on the control pad in the combine cab, the operator can move the cart in relation to the auger.
When finished unloading, the operator disengages "sync" and sends the cart back to the unloading area or somewhere else in the field by pushing a button on the pad. If the unload pin button is selected, the cart will automatically go to the unload pin and sit there to be manually unloaded by a truck driver or whomever. And, by looking at the pad, the operator always knows what the tractor is doing.
SAFETY A PRIORITY
Numerous safety protocols have been developed in the AutoCart software, said Mark Barglof, Smart Ag chief technology officer. "Not only does the tractor know where the combine has been, we also have systems in place that can detect objects," he explained. "The vehicle can detect corn, humans, vehicles, etc. We've programmed it to make a safe stop before it hits anything.
"Our system, in most cases, is probably safer than having a human operating the cart," he continued. "If it's dark out, it doesn't need headlights, it never gets tired and it will never operate unless its system checks pass," noted Barglof, who is also a corn and soybean farmer in north-central Iowa.
Internal boundaries, such as terraces or deep waterways, for the tractor to avoid can be programmed ahead of time or even on the go. In a wet fall, for example, the combine operator can draw a circle around a wet spot on the map in the cab, and the tractor will never go in that area. The combine operator can manually slow down the tractor and cart as it approaches a waterway.
Kyle Mehmen, co-owner and operations manager at MBS Family Farms, Plainfield, Iowa, tested AutoCart during the 2017 fall harvest. He's interested in the system's labor-saving advantage.
"We have 20 employees for our different businesses. Our excitement around this technology isn't about replacing any one of those 20," he said. "It's about bringing more on because the qualified labor scarcity is a real issue. We see this as something that can help with that."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Smart Ag is accepting a limited number of AutoCart orders for the 2018 harvest season on a first-come basis. Interested growers can visit www.smart-ag.com/pre-order.
The Smart Ag Kit for AutoCart comes with the following: SmartHP $25,000 includes the automation system for the tractor, all connection harnesses, equipment, hardware and installation instructions to automate the tractor for use with a grain cart or other equipment later on.
SmartNX $5,000 includes the hardware to connect your combine or any other machine to the cloud and any tractor with SmartHP.
AutoCart Software Application, the interface used in the combine to control the grain cart tractor, is priced at $2,500 per year or $10,000 for five years.
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