One Driver, Two Vehicles

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This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of CropLife magazine.

Get more, do more, and give more with Driverless Ag Technology from Raven Autonomy

By Robin Siktberg, Custom Content Editor, Meister Media Worldwide

It’s a race against time at harvest. Weather, labor, and equipment availability conspire in a race against crop maturity and contract deadlines. Every minute counts. Optimizing placement of drivers and carts so combines don’t stand idle in the field is an important way to increase efficiency.

With drivers in short supply, having a cart at the ready isn’t always easy. Raven Autonomy’s new Driverless Ag Technology, AutoCart, allows an operator to control a driverless tractor and grain cart directly from the cab of the harvester. The labor-saving aspect is obvious — just one driver is needed for two vehicles. The ability to place carts more efficiently in the field also saves time. Because the machine is almost completely automated, it is easy for unskilled labor to manage. Timing of the cart’s arrival is automatically synchronized, reducing grain loss, speeding harvest completion and ultimately resulting in more marketable crop.

“Harvest is a critical time of the year, and interruptions to the operation can have significant monetary impacts,” says Dominic Walkes, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Raven. “Not being able to harvest in a timely fashion can impact grain quality, too. Having to start harvest too early or finishing too late causes issues with drying, quality and the final yield.

AutoCart Advantages

• Avoid downtime and non-productive combine operation hours

• Secure harvest completion timing through increased efficiency

• Reallocate labor resources to other tasks

• Save grain loss with automated synchronization of combine and cart

Uncorking the Labor Bottleneck

Walkes says a driverless solution that is always available to the harvester provides tremendous value to growers.

“A combine can cost up to a million dollars,” he says. “Anytime it’s not doing productive work costs money. If there aren’t enough drivers, they can’t keep up with the pace of the harvester, and it sits idle for five or 10 minutes at a time. Throughout the day, this idle time really adds up.”

Labor resources can also be reallocated. Sometimes skilled operators are driving carts out of necessity, when they could be better used applying fall fertilizer or other operations.

“Labor is the bottleneck,” Walkes says.” Harvesters are getting faster and bigger, but farmers are still limited because they don’t have the drivers to support that capacity.”

How AutoCart Works

Tractors and carts can be strategically positioned in the field ahead of time. The harvester driver calls a cart to come up alongside and receive the load. When the cart is full, the driver directs the cart to an unloading point where it is unloaded. In the meantime, he calls up another cart to come alongside as the harvester continues. Placing the carts along the harvest route decreases travel and unloading time as well as reducing soil compaction in the field.

“The driver points to the cart, and presses a large button that says ‘Synchronize,’ Walkes says. “The tractor automatically comes alongside the harvester and synchronizes its speed, staying there until the operator returns it to either the staging point or unloading area. It’s about three button clicks. It was important to us to make it simple for the operator since he’s already operating the combine. We also wanted to be easy for unskilled labor to manage.”

The AutoCart package includes software, hardware, and a communication device. A camera, radar and other technology provide a full range of view around the tractor and cart. The perception system can see and react to both stationary and moving objects in its path. Kits are available for John Deere 8R tractors and safety vehicles.

Extensive Testing Shows Results

The AutoCart system has undergone extensive field testing and validation. Walkes says regional demonstrations have generated positive feedback from customers.

“We have thoroughly tested this system, and operators like it because it provides value on multiple levels,” Walkes says. ROI will vary based on the application, but customers we’ve talked to see the potential for a 10 to 20 percent improvement in their efficiency.

“We are incredibly excited to bring a driverless solution into the ag space,” Walkes says. “There is so much potential for this technology. We’re looking into the spreading and spraying space and other ways to provide solutions for customers in the future. This is only the beginning, we will be providing solutions for spreading and spraying applications later this summer and we will continue to look for other ways to provide value to farmers in the future.”