Autonomous Application

New Technology Highlights Potential for Unmanned Field Equipment

A John Deere 8320R runs autonomously along with other unmanned big hardware at the 2018 Farm Progress Show. (Progressive Farmer photo by Joel Reichenberger)

Autonomous-tractor applications displayed on the fields of this year's Farm Progress Show ‌highlight two potential directions for the future use of the technology.

In one, a John Deere 8000 Series tractor was transformed to run driverless by Smart Ag, an Ames-based company that's been turning heads with its AutoCart software Application. In another, FARB Guidance Systems (FGS) showed off its work with a small fleet of Caterpillar skid steers.

Autonomous-tractor technology has been popping up with demonstrations around the globe, but unleashing these functions at the farm machinery show was still a first and something in which each company took pride.

However, all the confidence in the world doesn't change the fact that there were 15 tons of steel rolling around a field without anyone behind the wheel in case of emergency.

As Mark Barglof, Smart Ag chief technology officer, showed off Smart Ag's tech, he made sure early in his presentation to display a safety mechanism, a small square box with an antenna at the top and just one bright red button on its face: an emergency stop/kill switch.

With FARB Guidance Systems, concern for safety was designed into the system from the idea's conception. What's one advantage of a fleet of miniature drone tractors compared to one full-sized machine?

FGS's Ries Escure, standing right at the edge of the field where the small skid steers ran, motioned to several nearby large row-crop tractors.

"If we brought a bunch of those," he said, "and I was running them around, you people would really want to be this close? You need to slowly get it into the public and allow everyone to feel comfortable."

There wasn't any need to press a big red button that day. The tractors rolled safely back and forth, symbolically and methodically moving farming into what could be an entirely new direction.

CONVERSION PRACTICES

At Smart Ag, work continues on the AutoCart program, a project the company began showing off early in the summer. If the crew that built that software has its way, the agriculture world will begin to change with the humble grain cart during harvest.

"Compare this to the transition from the horse to the tractor," said Colin Hurd, Smart Ag founder and a 2013 graduate of Iowa State University. "It will have just as big of an impact in farming as the tractor did 100 years ago," he said.

The Smart Ag system is described as "supervised autonomy," or Level 4 on a scale of 5, with 5 being, "Tell the tractor to go do the work while you're, perhaps, enjoying a nice nap in the office."

At this level, the tractors in the field work directly with a combine. An operator in the combine is in charge, summoning the tractor and cart, when needed. That operator is not pulling any other strings, however. A rendezvous point is set. The tractor arrives after using sensors to navigate around unharvested crops and using preset boundaries to avoid obstacles such as concrete structures and mud holes.

"He presses 'sync,' and the tractor drives up to the combine and takes off," Barglof said.

AutoCart was in the field in Iowa in August but isn't on the shelves yet. The company is hoping for a debut next year. Even that is just a start. It's more than a proof of concept at this point but far less than Smart Ag engineers hope to do with their software platform. They've tackled adding the hardware components of their system to John Deere tractors first but plan to add other manufacturers in the future. Plus, they want to expand the equipment's capability beyond a grain cart.

"This was something that gave us a really good foothold," Barglof said. "We had to be able to collaborate between vehicles. We had to be able to communicate, had to be able to send the vehicle and do path planning and create safety systems. This really takes that and proves out a lot of the core autonomous technology, and allows you to start to add more use cases in the future."

SWARMING TO AN IDEA

The team at FGS is thinking big in terms of use cases, as well, and a trio of Caterpillar skid steers motoring back and forth in the demo fields at the Farm Progress Show indicated as much. One was equipped with a sprayer tank. Another carried a spreader attachment and made use of an eight-foot disk. Engineers have explored all those options and a few more, and, they're thinking small tractors.

The idea, at least initially, isn't a product farmers can buy and take home, but an on-call custom-farming operation. Ring them up, and they plan to show up with perhaps 10 skid steers and all the appropriate implements. They'll do a quick scan of the field to establish boundaries and send their tractor swarm to its work.

"We want to use it as a service, to bring it out to people and let them experience it without making them put up a big capital investment," said Jordan Schwers, FGS's lead engineer. "We want to bring custom farming all over the country and all over the world."

They're hoping to do it from Post Falls, Idaho, where they've started taking on their first customers and have tackled more than 5,000 acres thus far.

The team sees plenty of advantages in a smaller approach. For instance, one breakdown takes out about 10% of the workforce. The small vehicles also do wonders to limit soil compaction and glide above mud that might suck in a larger tractor.

"Our main challenge is just acceptance at this point," Schwers explains.

But, there's at least one other challenge. As he stood next to the field and watched the machines work, he couldn't drift far. "I just have to be near these," he said, gesturing to a line of boxes, each with an important button. "It's an emergency stop, just in case."