Technology allows combine, grain carts to operate independently
By SEAN ELLIS
Drone tractors that operate without a farmer behind the wheel could hit farm fields as early as next spring, a development that could ultimately lead to fundamental changes in the nature of farming.
Though autonomous tractors that drive themselves may have seemed unthinkable to previous generations, Idaho wheat farmer Bill Flory has been anticipating it for several years.
"This is fun stuff," Flory said about the technology, which was demonstrated July 29 by Kinze Manufacturing Inc. during its annual dealer meeting in Iowa. "This is one of the reasons I enjoy doing what I do. I'm really excited about it."
Kinze, which is based in Williamsburg, Iowa, teamed its farming know-how with the technical expertise of Jaybridge Robotics to develop technology to allow tractors to operate with no operators in the cab.
The technology, which is geared toward grain farmers for now, will allow planters to operate all night with only cursory supervision. Driverless grain carts can be called up by a combine operator, filled and then sent away until they're needed again.
Besides saving on labor costs, the system could also reduce fuel costs because grain carts won't need to follow the combine through the entire field.
Wheat farmer Jerry Brown, a member of the Idaho Wheat Commission board of directors, said he is excited by the prospect that drone tractors could soon be operating in fields.
"A combine driver with GPS can order up a grain cart without anyone driving in the tractor, you fill it up as it parallels the tractor and away it goes?" he asked rhetorically. "That just blows my mind."
Massachusetts-based Jaybridge has done several projects for the military, which developed the technology, and was a perfect fit for what Kinze wanted to accomplish, said Susanne Kinzebaw Veatch, vice president and chief marketing officer for Kinze.
When the project first started two years ago, Kinze officials brought Jaybridge officials to Iowa to familiarize them with how farming works.
Kinze, which hopes to launch the technology as early as spring 2012, is expected to be the first company to bring drone tractors to the market but other equipment dealers are also developing similar technology.
Jerry Roell, of Deere and Co.'s Intelligent Solutions Group, said that company is also actively exploring similar technology, which has been on Deere's road map for some time. While he believes the market for that technology is getting closer, he doesn't believe it's quite there yet.
For now, the company is focusing on wireless technology that enables vehicle-to-office and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
"We continue to evaluate the technology ... and we'll be there" when the time is right, he said. "Just not next spring."
Officials of Case IH, which did not respond to requests for an interview, told the Wall Street Journal that they are also exploring ways to automate farm work. They said the company needs to look more closely at safety and regulatory issues.
Veatch said while some simple forms of autonomy have been used in rice production and orchard operations, the new technology is the first truly large-scale autonomous row crop solution in the world and it can be adopted for a variety of other tasks.
For now, Kinze is focusing on grain carts and planters because that's what the company manufactures, but Veatch envisions the technology being applied to other farm equipment in the near future. Kinze officials have not announced prices for the equipment.
In a nutshell, a grower using the technology would load a map of his field into his Global Positioning System. After the grower takes a tractor to the field and identifies where it's positioned, the system designates the most efficient method to plant the field and off it goes, without a driver.
"It's not remote control," Veatch said. "It truly is autonomous."
Because Kinze only makes planters and grain carts, the system would be retrofitted onto tractors.
Jaybridge President Jeremy Brown said the system features a host of low-cost sensors and advanced algorithms to ensure reliability and safety.
Kinze and Jaybridge officials said extensive research went into ensuring the safety of the system. Veatch said that included obstacle detection testing that simulated real-world scenarios to make sure the system would detect common objects found in a field such as fence posts, farm animals, humans, stand pipes and other vehicles.
"It's very safe," she said. "It knows when it's approaching another human being, an animal or another piece of equipment."
If an unplanned obstacle is encountered, however, a grower will still need to intervene to maneuver the equipment around it. Planters will also still need to be manually filled with seed and fertilizer when they run out, but Veatch said the company is developing an application that will allow the system to send the grower a text message when the planter is running low.
Veatch said the technology is being driven by labor costs and availability as well as the need for farmers to increase productivity and reduce input costs. The driverless tractors allow farmers to maximize their time during important parts of the growing season such as planting and harvest, she said.
"It's our goal to help reduce grower fatigue and help them make the most of their harvest," she said. "With this technology, producers can set the equipment to run all night."
Technology in cars
While Flory believes the technology will be slower coming to Idaho than the Midwest because the state lacks the square, flat fields abundant in that part of the country, he has no doubt it will work and help farmers save money once it's fully developed.
Flory, who farms in north Idaho near the state's border with Washington, has used rate controllers with sonar speed sensors, automatic steering and now GPS technology. He is on his fifth management system and says each is better than the previous one and costs about the same when you factor in how much more it accomplishes.
"It will work," he said of the autonomous technology. "I absolutely embrace it and think it's great."
The technology has been around for almost two decades and has been used in varying degrees in the military, mining and construction industries. Until recently, it has been cost-prohibitive for farm equipment makers.
General Motors recently announced it expects to be producing cars that drive themselves by 2020, and cars that partially drive themselves by 2015, using the same type of technology.
Roell said government regulators may just be waking up to the issue of drone farm equipment and his company believes more investigation on that front needs to be done before Deere and Co. is ready to launch its own version of autonomous farm equipment.
"I think there are probably some unknowns there," he said. "Those are the types of issues that need to be taken into consideration."
Veatch said the company has investigated state and federal regulations to ensure there are no regulatory impediments. She said the company has found the rules are wide open for the off-road use of farm equipment and Kinze doesn't expect to run into any regulatory problems.
Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten confirms that belief. "There are no restrictions in Idaho code for the driving or operating of farm machinery in the fields."
Veatch said company officials started the process of developing drone farm equipment after asking themselves what the next big thing in agriculture would be.
"We really think the next big thing will be autonomy," she said.