Driverless Tractors Are Now a Reality

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This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of CropLife magazine.

AutoCart® technology allows control of the tractor and grain cart from the harvester cab.

By Robin Siktberg, Custom Content Editor, Meister Media Worldwide

The agriculture industry continues to move toward a more fully automated future, driven in large part by the pressing need for labor and price pressures that demand efficiency. Growers of crops from chrysanthemums to corn are automating irrigation, using robots in production and harvest, and using automatic steering and spray application controls.

Raven Industries has been at the forefront of developing precision agriculture and automation technology for row-crop producers. One of its latest new solutions is AutoCart, which allows an operator to control a driverless tractor and grain cart directly from the cab of a harvester. The labor-saving aspect is obvious — just one driver for two vehicles. There are less obvious efficiencies as well, however. More efficient placement of carts is one, and because automation allows the machine to handle nearly everything, it is easier for unskilled workers to manage.

Machines That Can “See”

One of the key developments that made this possible was Raven’s recent collaboration with — and eventual acquisition of — Smart Ag, a company working on a perception system that allows machines to “see” their environment and avoid obstacles.

“Smart Ag’s technology hadn’t been truly commercialized yet,” says Wade Robey, Executive Director of Raven Autonomy. “Our engineers are making some adjustments, especially upgrading the hardware to be rugged enough to handle field conditions. We have it ready to go starting with the harvest this fall in the northern hemisphere. We’re beginning with harvesters and grain carts, but this is an easily translatable technology. We believe this system will apply in many different types of application on both unmanned machines and even manned machines as an additional layer of protection.”

The AutoCart technology allows a single operator to drive the harvester and call a tractor with the grain cart, which has been stationed in the field previously, to come up alongside and receive the load. When it’s full, the operator can direct the cart to a staging location where it can be unloaded. In the meantime, he can call in another tractor and cart to come alongside as the harvester continues.

“The reduction in labor is a big part of it, but not the only benefit,” Robey says. “As we take this perception system and translate it to even manned systems, it will allow us to increase the intelligence of that machine and allow it to function in a significantly more efficient way. It’s difficult to find trained labor, and putting a relatively untrained person in the cab of a very expensive machine runs the risk of damage to both the equipment and the crop. A third benefit of AutoCart is it will also allow more efficient positioning of and usage of the unmanned equipment in the field. All three of these elements will be part of the ultimate value package that farmer would realize.”

The ability to place carts along the harvest route reduces the time it takes to load and unload them. It also reduces soil compaction in the field, Robey says.

“As we see this technology adopted by larger farms running multiple equipment — both manned and unmanned — with other forms of autonomy such as tillage or spray applications, we will see the whole process become more efficient,” Robey says.

Why AutoCart?

Allows the operator of a harvester to control a driverless tractor and grain cart simultaneously.

Increases harvester efficiency up to 38% by unloading on the go, even when a driver is not available.

Efficiently reallocate your labor force to get the most work done during the short harvest window.

How It Works

The AutoCart system includes software, hardware and a communication device. Currently only John Deere 8RX wheeled tractors are compatible, but by next year, Robey says the company plans to have kits for additional brands and types of tractors available. The kit includes the camera, radar, and other technology that allows a full range of view around the tractor and cart. The perception system can see and react to both stationary and moving objects, such as a person or animal walking in its path. Robey says a controlled launch of AutoCart is planned for this fall, with a full release scheduled for the 2021 harvest season.

The AutoCart technology will not only expand to multiple equipment brands, but also to multiple crops. Robey says it has already been tested and proven on a range of different vegetable harvesters, including carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and he believes it will be useful in sugar cane, as well. All in all, Raven is evaluating the use of the AutoCart technology for 80 different crop types. Robey says in the future, having a perception system as part of agricultural equipment will be standard.

“It’s like the backup camera on your car,” he says. “When those first came out, we thought those were something only commercial vehicles would use. But you wouldn’t buy a new car today without having a backup camera and warning system. It’s just expected now. This will make farming safer and reduce crop damage.”

An Evolution for Agriculture

With the dearth of labor options and the pressing need for efficiency, Robey believes automation is the answer for the future.

“I think it will happen incrementally, but semi-automation and automation really will be the way it’s done in the future,” Robey says. Raven Applied Technologies has been part of precision agriculture since our beginning with flow controls, and then into guidance and application controls, machine control communication, and and the connectivity with field computers. These are all core elements of what automation will require.

“And now, the machines need to be smarter. We’re working very hard on the artificial intelligence part of this, to allow the coordination and optimization necessary to make it all work seamlessly. Raven is uniquely positioned to bring these technologies together and to the market. Autonomy has been a hope for many years, and we’re very excited to be part of bringing real products to the market that will make farming more efficient, safe and productive.”