Farm tractor auto-steer technology was conceived initially to relieve operator stress and improve precision equipment tracking. Over the past 20 years, it has been quietly developing and gestating to a point that it’s nearly ready to give birth to full-scale automated field operations where the number of humans required “in the cab” will soon be dwarfed by the number of machines “in the field.”
In fact, the human-to-tractor ratio was forever changed from 1:1 to 1:2 with the introduction of AGCO’s Fendt Guide Connect System at Agritechnica 2013. GuideConnect links two tractors together to act as one. In that system, a guided, unstaffed tractor closely follows an operator-controlled guide tractor at a set distance to its flank, performing the same procedures and negotiating the same turning maneuvers at turnrows and when avoiding obstacles.
The system, which depends upon RTK-GPS satellite positioning and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless communication between the vehicles, doubles working widths per operator hour, and, in some cases, allows smaller tractors to do the work of a large single tractor. But separated from GuideConnect duties, the smaller tractors can be run independently elsewhere on the farm adding management flexibility for improved equipment use efficiency. The potential to use smaller, lighter tractors also offers growers opportunities to reduce yield-robbing field soil compaction.
AGCO’s Fendt GuideConnect system cuts the labor in half and doubles the working width by linking two tractor and implement combinations electronically to be operated by one driver.
Matt Rushing, AGCO’s vice president for Global Advanced Technology Solutions, says the system is sound and functional, but it has been limited somewhat by the marketplace and the need to continually test and validate.
“Actually the technology is ahead of the legislation in most markets,” he explains. “We can do these things right now, but the various regulatory agencies overseeing where these systems operate are asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions concerning safety, etc. We are confident we have answers for them designed in our systems, but in many areas the systems have not been technically approved. We just have to wait for the lawmakers to catch up and the technology to mature.”
So, what’s the immediate development future of GuideConnect? Rushing says the logical next step would be pairing two combines for harvest operations.
During the same period AGCO was working on GuideConnect, engineers at Kinze Mfg. Inc., Williamsburg, Iowa, were doing computer simulations aimed at technology to bring autonomous vehicles to America’s grain harvest. That project grew into a set of prototype “autonomous grain carts” that could follow harvesters and return to transport trucks on their own.
In 2014, Kinze Autonomy, in collaboration with the Massachusetts robotics software firm Jaybridge Robotics, fielded a system to three farmers with the ability to run multiple combines and autonomous grain carts (tractor and cart combinations) in the same field simultaneously.
The system, as tested in autumn 2014, automatically chooses from multiple carts in the field the one most appropriate for the combine operator to unload into upon the operator’s request. The system also keeps tabs on all vehicles in the field so the autonomous tractor/cart combinations always take the safest and most efficient path to the combines.
Any of the combine operators — all of whom have on-board aerial views of the field to allow them to see where other combines and carts are operating — can call any of the autonomous grain carts when they are ready to unload. The autonomous units are also equipped with side radar sensors, giving the operator vision of both sides of the vehicles as well as a view in front of the tractor.
Phil Jennings, Kinze’s service manager, says the operating software for the system was upgraded in 2014 to include the ability for the operator to establish functional areas within a field, such as an idling area or a parking area for grain carts to be staged. “With this system the autonomous vehicles will be entering the parking area the same way each time they return. Also, the operator can mark obstacles in the field or other areas in which the landowner or the operator may not want vehicular traffic.”
In addition, Jennings says Kinze has worked with customers to put two combines and two autonomous grain carts in a field and equip them so they communicate with one another to provide two autonomous systems in the field working together.
Jennings says in its present iteration, the system is not designed to take into consideration traffic patterns a grower may be using to control compaction during field operations, but he says if that becomes a concern in feedback to Kinze, such ability would certainly be considered in the future.
“Harvest operations are usually a bit different than planting and cultivation chores which directly impinge on the soil, many times in wetter conditions,” he explains.
Kinze’s equipment has been undergoing tests in the Corn Belt, and so far, the engineering effort has concentrated on autonomous grain carts. The company says it is also developing an autonomous planter.
For 2015, Jennings says Kinze’s efforts will include further testing and perfecting the grain cart system to ensure it operates reliably in many different conditions.
Meanwhile, in Australia, trials of a robotic driverless tractor are proceeding in a joint program between Rice Research Australia, three Australian universities and the Japanese companies Hitachi Zosen Corp. and Yanmar Co.
Rice Research Australia Manager Russell Ford is quoted in recent published reports noting the system is “meeting all expectations” with very good accuracy in the field. Ford estimates widespread use of this technology as a “reality on the farm” within the next 10-15 years.
The Future of Swarms?
In 2011, engineers at AGCO’s Valtra division were given an assignment of drafting a futuristic version of farm equipment that would combine tractors and implements into staffed and slave units, all of which would share many common parts and engineering. The project was part of Valtra’s 60 year business anniversary.
The engineers came back with the ANTS Concept, a play on words based on the A, N, T and S model Valtra tractors of the time, and included versatile, lightweight and powerful vehicles (that happen to resemble ants in their appearance) that could be powered traditionally or with diesel-electric generator sets. The concept also envisions these vehicles will be operated by a driver or run autonomously as a slave unit and equipped with a variety of implements and tools.
The ANTS concept embodied the idea of smaller, highly versatile pieces of equipment doing the job of today’s larger, heavier single tractors pulling specialized implements. The work of AGCO and Kinze Mfg. over the past 3 years tends to add credence to the vision of the Valtra engineers. To read more on the ANTS Concept, visit www.valtra60.com.