Corn and soybean harvest is gearing up at farms throughout the Midwest.
At a few farms in Iowa and Illinois this harvest season, there will be less manpower than usual operating the big machinery out in the fields.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary going on.
The combine efficiently cuts the corn in the field. Then the tractor with the grain cart pulls up at the right distance and speed from the combine, and positions the cart under the combine unload auger. After being filled, the tractor goes back to the semi at the end of the field for grain unloading.
No – nothing unusual about that.
But look closer and you’ll see there’s no one driving the tractor.
Driverless tractors are becoming all the rage these days. A few companies are developing their own driverless tractors, realizing that harvesting and planting are labor-intensive and there isn’t always labor available these days.
In addition, timely seeding and harvesting translate into more efficient production and boost the producer’s bottom line.
But many of the driverless tractors being manufactured are small single units. Kinze Manufacturing, based in Williamsburg, Iowa, is the first company to have complete autonomous planting and harvesting technology utilizing regular-sized tractors and combines that communicate with each other, said Rhett Schildroth, product manager for Kinze Manufacturing.
“This is really state-of-the-art technology that works in real time to seed or harvest a crop,” Schildroth said.
The Kinze driverless technology is placed in the combine and tractor and both machines communicate with each other so harvest runs smoothly, he said.
What is really happening is the combine operator begins to talk to the driverless tractor by engaging the “Follow Me” mode,” Schildroth said. That essentially tells the tractor to follow the combine in the field.
When the producer is ready to unload the harvested grain into the cart, he presses the “Unload” button on his Kinze tablet.
The autonomous tractor and grain cart system then speed up and pull alongside the combine, and the combine operator can then start filling the cart, Schildroth said.
When the producer wants to utilize the “Park” mode, he pushes a button that instructs the autonomous grain cart system to return to the edge of the field.
From there, the cart can be unloaded into a semi-trailer for the grain to be hauled away from the field.
The producer also has the option to utilize the “Idle” mode, and when he pushes that button, the autonomous system comes to a controlled stop at its current location and waits for further instructions.
“We will have a few select farmers harvesting with the autonomous equipment this harvest season,” Schildroth said.
He said Kinze Manufacturing has been developing the driverless technology for a few years and named it Kinze Autonomy.
After developing the technology in the lab, they partnered with JayBridge Robotics in Cambridge, Mass., and brought the system to the field, Schildroth said.
He added they have a few farm acres right at their company site, and they planted and harvested a crop to test the autonomous technology successfully last year.
The row crop technology was unveiled last summer, and this harvest season will be the first time farmers will be using the technology to harvest their corn and soybean crops.
The system operates by GPS, and the robotic technology can be retrofitted on any brand of combine or tractor, Schildroth said.
The display on the autonomous technology computer (tablet) shows different modes that the producer can select, he said.
Schildroth said there are several sensors and cameras that are part of the Kinze autonomous technology. If the tractor encounters an obstacle while operating in the field, the cameras and sensors will note it and the tractor will stop and wait until the obstacle is removed and the operator in the combine instructs it to proceed.
“There is a lot of excitement about the technology,” Schildroth said. “Farms are getting larger and the labor needed to operate these larger acres is harder to find.”
In addition, farm equipment is becoming more advanced, and Schildroth explained, “you can’t just put anyone into the cab and expect him or her to be experts.”
Besides harvesting, the autonomous technology can be used to seed, apply nutrients and work the field, he said.
“The tractor can pull a drill or any piece of equipment, not just a grain cart,” he added.
After this harvest season, Kinze Manufacturing hopes to take autonomous row crop technology to another level, but they are still making decisions as to how to manufacture the technology on a large scale. In addition, they still need to decide the costs involved to purchase the system, Schildroth said.
“But we’re excited to see how harvest goes for the farmers this year,” Schildroth said.