Mainstream on-farm autonomous machinery gained a lot of ground in 2019, particularly if you consider a prototype New-Holland natural-gas-fueled driverless tractor got prime billing at the New York Stock Exchange over the Labor Day weekend.

The Big City media object lesson not-withstanding, on-the-ground farm autonomy was on display across the Corn Belt in a big way this past summer, and one of the principals in those demonstrations says mainstream farm equipment autonomy is only a handful of years away.

Craig Rupp and Kyler Laird spent much of the summer on a five-state soybean planting demonstration that included fields in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana using an off-the-shelf leased JCB 4220 tractor they had equipped with their sensors and controllers, and an 18-row, 20-inch Harvest International planter with CleanSweep technology and down force control. Their goal was 10,000 acres of autonomously-planted soybeans on cooperator farms across the area.

Rupp, whose career involves a couple of decades in the wireless industry and a stint at John Deere where he developed the Starfire receiver and the GreenStar display, says he and Laird, his partner in the newly-formed farm-service business Sabanto, were not satisfied with the rate things were moving in public acceptance of on-farm autonomous equipment. That’s why they launched their multi-state planting demonstration – to show technology exists to accurately plant a crop without a driver and to jump-start lots of coffee shop conversations.

“Kyler has been working on autonomous planting on his own in Indiana for a number of years and his experience is invaluable in our project,” Rupp explains. “We learned a lot, particularly about different farming methods in different geographies, and we learned it’s not always easy to find adequate cell service or RTK signals. Still, we overcame those problems and think we’re the first to have autonomously planted soybeans on a farm scale in all of these states.”

Rupp says Sabanto’s goal is not to develop equipment or agronomic prescriptions, but rather be a planting service provider that takes into account a farmer’s prescriptions, planting rate desires and all the things that different geographies change about farming methods.

“We base that on our experience this summer and a quote from a Nebraska farmer cooperator who told us, ‘You can drive 100 miles in any direction and find farming methods are drastically different,’” Rupp explains.

He says visiting with the cooperators from the planting tour convinced him U.S. farmers are eager to embrace autonomous technology because of productivity improvements it promises in labor savings, precision, and timing.

“From our experience with these cooperators, I’m confident autonomous planting will be mainstream in farmer’s minds within 3-5 years,” he says.

Hauling the Grain

By late August, a number of show-goers at the Farm Progress Show watched as personnel from Smart Ag, an Ames, Iowa, firm specializing in plug-and-play tractor automation equipment demonstrated their fully autonomous grain cart capability behind combines in fields near Decatur, Ill.

The company’s lead product engineer, Quincy Milloy says the demonstrations were some of the last “verification” trials for Smart Ag’s kit for John Deere 8R wheel tractors that converts the machine to an autonomous power source for grain carts.

“This kit allows the combine operator to link up with the tractor/grain-cart unit and control it completely with an iPad from the combine cab,” Milloy explains. “The product is the result of a nearly complete hardware overhaul for us so we can assure our customers their systems are up to the task at all times.

“That’s what these tests are for,” he explains. “You certainly don’t want an autonomous tractor and grain cart sitting idle during harvest because of equipment problems, and that’s what we’re ensuring by spending so much time in the field.”

Milloy says common challenges to autonomous field operations include the safety factors of making certain equipment is “aware” of its surroundings and is capable of stopping or avoiding collisions with objects or other in-field equipment.

“Also, farming is usually done in remote areas where cell service is sketchy,” he explains. “That’s why we’ve layered communication capability in a manner that our equipment can stay in contact with other machines in the field at all times through a lot of system redundancy.”

Milloy says Smart Ag plans to begin production of its kits this winter in time for sale early in the 2020 growing season.