The AutoCart system eliminates a driver for the grain cart
SAVING LABOR: The AutoCart system eliminates a driver for the grain cart, as the tractor driver is replaced by automation. The grain cart is manually unloaded into the truck by the truck driver.

Piloting driverless tractors

Autonomous farm equipment is seen as the next step to improving farming efficiency and productivity.

A young agricultural entrepreneur, Colin Hurd founded Smart Ag in late 2015. The startup company has developed the first after-market system to automate farm machinery, using technology to make it driverless. Based in an office in the Startup Factory at Iowa State University Research Park in Ames, Hurd has a team of six people working with him.

Upon starting Smart Ag, “we began designing the software for the driverless tractor system right away,” says the 28-year-old Hurd, who graduated from ISU with an ag business degree in 2013. “It took a while to find the right people with the expertise to help me. We began by putting together an early system to test some software.”

Taking the concept to the next level, they put the system on a tractor to test it during harvest 2016. As an early prototype, it lacked some features. “It wasn’t self-aware,” Hurd says. “It wasn’t aware of its surroundings, didn’t know how to see obstacles, which is an important ability to have in an autonomous system. We were still developing the system, but we saw that it could work.”

Putting tech to work in farm fields
With hands-on experimenting and use in the field, Hurd and his helpers were able to better understand the problem they were solving. “That’s one of the best ways to build a product like this,” he says. “Put it in the environment you are designing it for. That laid the groundwork for what the product is today.”

The Smart Ag team — which includes a rocket scientist along with others with experience working for ag and machinery companies involved in precision agriculture — has built what they consider to be a game-changing product called SmartHP to automate almost any type or brand of existing tractor for a number of in-the-field operations. 

The first application Smart Ag has brought to market for sale to farmers beginning this January is called AutoCart. After SmartHP is installed on a tractor, farmers can use the AutoCart software system to run their grain cart without a driver during harvest. In 2018, Smart Ag will sell a limited number of the systems and began taking pre-orders in January.

Grain cart test results look good
Because Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for Smart Ag, farms near Algona, they can take concepts to his farm for testing. The final on-farm field testing for AutoCart came during harvest 2017 with two cooperator farmers: one near Plainfield in northeast Iowa and one at Galena in northwest Illinois.

The Smart Ag team connected with farmer Kyle Mehmen at Plainfield, co-owner and operations manager of MBS Family Farms. Mehmen is a member of Family Farms Group, based at Brighton, Ill. He’s on a committee with Family Farms Group looking at autonomous farming. “It’s a forward-thinking group,” Hurd says. “Kyle has a strong interest in making autonomy possible on the farm to use driverless equipment.”

Family Farms Group reached out to Smart Ag, offering help. Hurd told them Smart Ag wanted to work with a farmer in Iowa during the 2017 harvest who had a certain model of tractor to test the AutoCart system. “Kyle became one of our first testing customers,” he says.

Tech helps solve labor shortage
Allen Lash, CEO of Family Farms Group, says such automation is necessary to deal with the labor shortage on farms. Lash says his group has been looking into automation since 2009. While efforts to use robotics and precision agriculture have been around even longer, more products are now working their way to the market.

“For decades, we’ve been limited on farms to about 1,000 acres per full-time employee,” Lash says. “If we’re going to break out of that and drive more efficiency, it’s probably easier to automate than to train unskilled labor.”

Working with farmer Dennis Redington in Illinois last fall, the Smart Ag team ran the AutoCart system in a different terrain. Fields around Galena are smaller, hillier and in odd shapes; cellphone coverage is a lot spottier. “It was good to test AutoCart in the two different environments,” Hurd says.

How did AutoCart work in the hills? Good, although there were unique challenges. “The complicated shapes of fields increased our processing time a little, and we wouldn’t have known that otherwise,” Hurd says. “But we were able to adjust to make it faster. We learned a lot.”

Ultimately, AutoCart ended up working well, and Redington plans to use it again in 2018.

How the guidance system works
Autosteer relies on either GPS or RTK signals. “We use standard GPS,” Hurd says. “If you have RTK, that’s great. But for the grain cart, it’s not required.”

What happens if you lose the GPS signal? The tractor won’t operate. “That’s the default,” he explains. “When anything goes wrong, the tractor stops. Safety is a huge priority for us. It’s important to get that right with autonomous farming. We’ve structured our system to pass a number of checks before it is able to perform. If any of those checks fail or it doesn’t have a GPS signal, the tractor won’t start, or if it loses the signal in the field, it will stop.”

CALLING THE CART: Using a tablet in the combine cab, the combine operator calls the grain cart to come get filled up. He sends the full cart to a truck at the end of the field to unload.

Is autonomous equipment ready for widespread adoption in agriculture? Hurd believes the technology is 100% ready. “We aren’t creating a new navigation system,” he says. “The one that’s here today, being used for autosteer, works. Ag and other industries have been using GPS for 20 years or more at very high accuracy with very low incidence of signal dropping issues. It’s one of the pieces of technology that is enabling autonomous agriculture.”

Some people may say you need something besides GPS. “Our philosophy is to use as much existing technology as possible,” Hurd says. “Not only does it bring the cost down, it makes the system more compatible across different applications. There are other ways to do localization. But they aren’t as simple as GPS and the accuracy with GPS can be just as good.”

Insurance and liability a concern?
Insurance and government regulations don’t always keep up with innovation. But for insurance today, autonomous vehicles and farm machinery are covered by standard policies. They aren’t excluded; therefore, they are insured. This may change in the future. But if you have insurance on your farm equipment, whether there’s a person in the cab or not, it is covered.

Hurd believes the change autonomous technology will bring to agriculture is similar to the change the tractor brought when it was first developed. “The impact of driverless technology will be as significant, if not more so, than the first tractor,” he says. “That’s what we are on the cusp of; it’s exciting.”

Farming has made big strides in production and efficiency. Agriculture has always maximized the metric of acres per hour. Bigger tractors get more acres done in less time, so tractors have been made more powerful with higher tech. “They run faster, too,” Hurd says. “You can now pull equipment at 10 mph through a field, even a planter. However, I think relying on developing bigger, faster equipment is tapped out in terms of gaining efficiency.”

Limits to bigger, faster machinery
There are limits to how big and fast these machines can get. Infrastructure limits are also involved. You can’t make roads much bigger or redesign every roadway in the country to accommodate larger farm equipment.

As an alternative, this is where autonomous technology comes in, Hurd says. Driverless equipment changes everything. You no longer want or need big machinery. Multiple smaller pieces of equipment are more efficient and effective. “That’s what we are looking at in the near future,” he adds. “Granted, size is going up now, but things change rapidly. Once people realize the implications and benefits of autonomous equipment, I think you’ll see things change just as quickly.”

For information on the AutoCart system, its limited commercial release and cost, visit smart-ag.com.

Christopher Gannon

                 
NEXT STEP: Colin Hurd is founder of Smart Ag, an ag startup that develops and sells technology enabling farmers to make tractors driverless.

Comfortable getting out of the cab?

Some farmers aren’t sure they want to run a tractor and grain cart without a driver. They can put their dad or retired uncle in the cab who knows how to drive a grain cart. All the person would need to do is push a button to stop the tractor if something doesn’t look right.

“That’s a low-pressure way to get used to a driverless tractor,” notes Colin Hurd of Smart Ag. “To use our technology, you don’t have to leave the cab. You can sit behind the steering wheel and watch it run. A person will usually spend a day in the cab of an autonomous tractor; then say it’s boring and get out. The nice thing about AutoCart being our first driverless application is the combine operator is supervising and controlling the tractor from the combine cab. That makes the transition of getting the driver out of the tractor cab easier.”

So far, Smart Ag’s system is only available for use with a grain cart. They haven’t tested it yet in other applications but it is designed for planting, spraying and other uses in the future. “Our hope is after making the initial investment to automate a tractor, the farmer will use that tractor for other jobs like planting or tillage,” Hurd says. “Our initial effort is with AutoCart for a grain cart, to get the autonomous system started. Then bring on other uses.”

Currently, AutoCart is only for Deere tractors and newer models. “However, our software is 90% universal, and that’s important,” Hurd says. “We designed SmartHP and AutoCart to eventually work with other brands of equipment. Only 10% of what we put on a tractor is actually customized for make and model.” The current version of AutoCart fits 48 models of Deere tractors. “As we grow as a company and as a team, we will expand to other major brands,” Hurd says.

While taking this conservative approach to introduce the system to the marketplace, Smart Ag realizes farmers have different brands of machinery, and if they are to use autonomous equipment, it needs to be compatible.

“If you are running a red combine with a green tractor, the two systems need to be able to talk to each other,” Hurd says. “Our technology can make that possible.”

He adds, “Farmers interested in putting our product on a tractor that isn’t Deere should call us and sign up. We can put that model on our list and prioritize. If enough people have a certain tractor they want us to install the system on, then maybe it’s time to engineer it and make it work.”

Many older tractors are underused and need a technology upgrade, but are good for pulling grain carts. Older tractors are more complicated to convert to autonomous, as the amount of technology you have to install increases. They may need autosteer or CANBUS. It’s possible, but once you get a tractor older than year 2000, the cost is greater to automate.

For the AutoCart system Smart Ag sells today, entry-level price starts at about $25,000 for any tractor Smart Ag is compatible with. “There are 48 different newer Deere models we can run our system on today,” Hurd says. “That’s the system to automate your tractor and make it capable of being driverless.”

Another part of the system needs to be installed on the combine. It doesn’t automate the combine; it’s a connectivity system providing the interface technology needed in the combine cab to control the tractor pulling the grain cart. It costs about $5,000. Added to the $25,000 for AutoCart for the tractor, you’re talking $30,000 or so in upfront cost to put the grain cart system to work on your farm.

There’s an additional $2,500 cost per year, a software fee that includes support, service and all upgrades. It backs up your data in the cloud. You can buy the software on an annual basis and pay as you go, or buy it five years upfront when you purchase the system and get a 25% discount.

 

 

 

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