You are here

Remote-controlled farm

Whether it's conserving minutes, money, or manpower in farming, efficiency is the name of the game. For many, the answer to achieving that goal lies in technology.

“Electronic-based technology is very well established in agricultural applications. It was one of the main drivers of productivity, efficiency, comfort, automation, and sustainability over the last 10 years,” says Herbert Reiter, vice president, engineering, Fendt. “Due to the high pressure from the market on commodity prices, farmers were obliged to cut production costs and to invest in technologies for higher efficiency and productivity.”

But how far are farmers willing to go to widen that gap between profit and loss? While letting go of the steering wheel is one thing, would you be willing to remove yourself from the tractor seat entirely?

“Farmers' behaviors are more on the conservative side,” continues Reiter. “Electronic equipment in a rough environment of field applications and farming operations is a challenge. However, farmers watch very carefully new technologies and check the benefits they will get out of them.”

It's those benefits that are driving companies like Kinze Manufacturing to take steps toward advancing farmers to the next level.

Kinze's Autonomy Project

Thinking outside the box is a quality that Kinze Manufacturing prides itself on. It's also a quality that is helping the company look to the future as it gears up for growth.

“Bringing firsts to the agriculture market is what Kinze Manufacturing has been doing for more than 45 years,” says Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, vice president and chief marketing officer at Kinze.

With the recent announcement of its Autonomy Project, the company is continuing that tradition with this innovative solution to increase productivity on the farm.

The project marries three existing technologies – GPS, automation, and sensing – to create a system that is designed to reduce the need for skilled labor by taking the human element out of the tractor cab.

“It's our goal to help reduce fatigue and help producers make the most of their harvest,” says Veatch. “As growers ourselves, we know how crucial it is to be productive during the short planting and harvesting windows. With this technology, producers can set their equipment to run all night if necessary.”

It's a concept that is definitely piquing Doug Applegate's interest. Applegate, who farms about 1,500 acres near Oakland, Iowa, says he's cautiously optimistic.

“Harvest is the time of year when I need the most help,” Applegate says. “Auto steer has not improved as well as I would have expected. This does not give me confidence that this will work well anytime soon. Although Kinze is the new kid on the block when it comes to technology, the company may surprise me.”

A limited release of Kinze's autonomous harvest system is planned for fall 2012.

“Our Autonomy Project allows one person to do more,” says Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, vice president and chief marketing officer for Kinze Manufacturing. “A farmer could plant three fields at the same time and monitor each one. The benefit is efficiency.”

More than two years in the making, Kinze's Autonomy Project marries off-the-shelf components – including GPS, radar, laser sensors, and video cameras – with custom software that allows the system to react to field obstructions. Instead of having a person at the wheel, a system of sensors and complex algorithms keeps the tractor on task.

Partnering with Jaybridge Robotics, a Massachusetts-based firm, Kinze engineers brought the technology from the lab to the field, where it was tested and refined. Both companies believe full autonomy will be an important tool on farms of the future.

“As more and more of the American population moves out of agriculture, across the board there is an increased need for greater per-person efficiency on the farm. That's matched by an ever-increasing worldwide demand for food,” says Jeremy Brown, president of Jaybridge Robotics.

The steady progression toward efficiency, he continues, is evident well before the introduction of autonomy.

“You see a permanent push for increasing efficiency, starting with the transition from animal power to machine power to larger and larger implements so that a single farmer can cover more and more territory with fewer and fewer people. This is really just another evolutionary step in increasing the efficiency of these individual agricultural workers.”

“Kinze's Autonomy Project definitely got people talking and thinking, which also created a proof of concept so we know it can be done,” says Adam Gittins, a precision ag manager with HTS Precision Ag Solutions, Harlan, Iowa.

But Kinze isn't the only player in the game. Others in the iron industry – like AGCO, Case IH, and John Deere – are actively pursuing their own version of autonomous farming (see sidebars).

“Autonomous technology is one of the future technologies AGCO is looking into,” says Reiter. “In a lot of other industries, autonomous technology already is available and used. If we can transfer this technology to ag machinery, we drive productivity, standardization of processes, and automation. This is an analogy to fully robotized machining areas of manufacturing or assembly operations. Fendt's GuideConnect is a first step in this direction.”

Challenges ahead

While the growing need to do more with less is a driving force behind this technology, the liability and safety issues, as well as a reliable means of communication, are concerns that have held it back.

Fendt GuideConnect

The Fendt GuideConnect system, which is from AGCO Corporation, was unveiled at Agritechnica in Hanover, Germany, this past winter. To improve productivity, the system pairs vehicles in the field and gives them the ability to perform as one unit.

GuideConnect links an operator-driven tractor with an unmanned tractor, which is directed and monitored via RTK-GPS satellite navigation and secure radio communications between the two vehicles.

After exchanging passwords, the system sets the following distance and offset. The unmanned tractor then follows the lead vehicle as they do the same field operation. At the end of the field, the guided tractor steers behind the lead tractor for turning. Implements are automatically raised and lowered before and after the turn.

To avoid obstacles, the operator in the lead tractor commands the driverless tractor into a straight-behind driving mode until they are clear of the obstacle. The offset is then reestablished. If the lead tractor's satellite positioning is no longer possible, the wireless connection is interrupted. If the distance between the tractors is too large or small, the follow vehicle automatically stops.

Later upgrades for the guided tractor include equipping it with an environment sensor system, which will allow it to operate more autonomously so it can stop automatically for an obstacle.

To learn more about GuideConnect, visit www.fendt.com.

“The biggest challenges with autonomous technology will be to demonstrate, on the one side, the benefits of this equipment, and on the other side, a safe and reliable operation over a long period of time,” explains Reiter. “Ease of use will be mandatory.”

Veatch agrees and says, “We need to build farmer confidence in the technology. Experience with the system helps build that confidence. After seeing demonstrations and using the systems, farmers can develop confidence that the technology is safe to use and is just as effective or more effective than human production.”

But Gittins feels the adoption of this type of technology will be a step-by-step process and will ultimately come down to the price tag it bares.

“I believe there are several stepping stones that need to happen between where we are today and the wide use of autonomous vehicles,” he says. “First, we need to have stable wireless communications between vehicles in the field and vehicles to office.”

While there have been strides toward this, he feels more time is needed to make sure it is stable, timely, and not limited by distance.

“This springboards into being able to control one vehicle in the field from another,” he continues. “Step two would be to completely remove the operator from the tractor, and the combine operator could dock a grain cart to follow the combine, then undock to park the grain cart and leave it stationary.”

Next, he believes, would be to have a vehicle that would be autonomous but still have an operator as John Deere has done with Machine Sync. “This allows someone to keep an eye on everything, and stop the operation if something goes wrong.”

The final step, Gittins says, is to have two vehicles running in the same field with one operator. “For instance, a farmer may plant with two tractors and two planters, and control one of them remotely from the cab of the other tractor,” he says. “That still allows for some windshield observation to quickly stop a system that malfunctions.”

Rethinking equipment

Rethinking farm equipment might be required to reduce the legal and liability concerns, says James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Purdue University.

“For instance, some crop operations might be done by a horde of small robots instead of the multirow equipment common now,” he says. “The smaller size would make them less menacing to those worried about safety.”

It's that concept of rethinking farm equipment that enticed Terry Anderson to begin researching alternatives more than a decade ago.

“After I retired in the late ‘90s, I was in northwestern Minnesota reconnecting with relatives who farm there when a cousin took delivery of a new tractor,” he recalls.

Not only did he think the machine looked expensive, he saw problems with the way it was being constructed.

“I started to look at how the tractor was built from a structural standpoint,” he says. “Transmissions and differentials were almost at their structural limit.”

As the acres farmers cover has grown, machinery has tried to keep pace by growing in size to offset the dwindling labor force. But it has created other issues.

“Our roads are being damaged because they can't handle the bigger equipment. This equipment is knocking down power lines, road signs and mailboxes,” notes Anderson. “They have also become so heavy, which is causing soil compaction.”

But making a smaller, less expensive tractor, Anderson would quickly find out, was only part of the problem.

“A friend of mine told me not to waste my time building a tractor because there wasn't enough labor to drive it,” he says.

But that didn't deter Anderson; He realized agriculture needed a machine that could also drive itself.

After 12 years of research by Anderson and the Automation Research Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, along with discussions with farmers and farm machinery and business experts, what evolved is the Spirit autonomous tractor.

Measuring 8½ feet wide, 12 feet long and 8 feet high, the tractor is built on a steel-tubing frame, which is modeled after train locomotive frames, and includes diesel electric technology.

In a diesel-electric tractor, the diesel engine drives an electric generator. That DC output goes into a variable speed controller to vary the speed of the motor.

“There is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels,” explains Anderson. “The system includes twin diesel engines that drive electrical generators, which in turn drive the traction motors and a controller that controls the supply of electricity to the traction motors.”

Case IH CVC

Trevor Mecham, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager, says its coordinated vehicle (CVC) control system is the company's latest move toward autonomous technology.

The CVC control system is a technological application of the company's Advanced Farming System (AFS). Using a wireless connection (such as WiFi or a Bluetooth device), the CVC system allows one driver to synchronize the data exchange, traveling speed, and steering of two working vehicles.

“What we're creating is this orchestrated synergy between the combine and the tractor,” explains Mecham. “We're really focusing on two prongs: controlling the vehicle and sharing information. When we take coordinated vehicle control, there is a subset of priorities in that list that we want to create. It's not just about controlling or automating a tractor to work in conjunction with a combine; it's about the flow of information back and forth. It's the sharing of information that's extremely vital.”

An integral part of that sharing is determining the best way to do it.

“What is the best form of connection? Is it radio? Is it Bluetooth? Is it wireless? Those are the things we're really looking at. Because what it comes down to is getting that connection – that constant connected communication,” Mecham says. 

“Diesel-powered electric drives, to me, seem like a fantastic idea,” comments Gittins. “Freight trains have used the technology for 70+years. I'm not sure why it hasn't been implemented in other places.”

The machine also runs on rubber tracks. “We finally concluded that tracks were the only solution,” Anderson notes.

Another trait that sets this machine apart is that it doesn't rely on GPS.

“The Sun constantly ejects streams of high energy plasma at a very high rate of speed. A few of these streams hit the Earth's ionosphere and create plasma bubbles, which block GPS signals in areas from seconds to days,” explains Anderson. “It is not reliable enough for safe autonomous operation and never will be. The GPS industry says they have fixed the problem. How will they fix the Sun or the ionosphere?”

Machine Sync And Beyond

This fall, John Deere customers will be able to automatically position grain carts alongside moving combines using Machine Sync. Introduced in August 2011, Machine Sync will be available on S-Series combines and new and existing 60- and 70-Series combines.

Based on a recent sneak peek into Deere's technology treasure chest, the company is exploring how to take this platform to the next level.

“One of the projects we've been working on for a couple years is a coordinated tractor project,” says Bob Dyar, John Deere project manager.

Another venture, which has been in development for several years, involves highly automated machines.

“It's quite easy to automate a tractor to drive itself,” he says. “The hard part comes when you do mission planning. When you have systems that are perceptive, you have to make sure that a tree doesn't get hit.”

Yet, the company feels it's also about timing with these types of systems.

“There are additional hurdles to be accomplished from engineering and social standpoints,” he says. “Frankly, we don't think the timing is right to introduce this type of technology today. We are working on it. We're capable of doing it. When we feel comfortable with it and we feel society will feel comfortable with it, we'll be ready with a product to go to market.”

He adds that, “We use an inexpensive combination of twin laser units and radios for positioning (Ag Positioning Systems or APS) rather than an expensive unstable GPS system.”

Three or four small inexpensive positioning transducer units (PTU) are temporarily placed around the edge of any odd-shaped or contoured field.

“The rugged little transponders can guide one or more tractors to within fractions of an inch of accuracy,” he explains.

Not only is GPS missing from the equation, the most notable feature that's been eliminated is the cab. “It's pretty revolutionary in that it doesn't have a cab on it,” he says. “That glass penthouse is pretty darn expensive. If no one is going to sit in the cab, why have it?”

Robot in training

The fundamental thought process behind Anderson's idea is that he wanted the robotic tractor to be trained as if you were actually training an employee rather than programming it.

“The biggest reaction we've seen by not only the farmers but by the other tractor makers is the fact that you don't program this tractor. You teach it just like you would a hired hand,” explains Anderson. “Farmers have told me they want to use the Spirit tractor like they would a hired hand.”

Within the tractor is a touch screen panel that allows you to select among various modes. “For example, in a Follow Me Mode, the farmer can set the unit so the tractor stays a certain number of feet behind him and offset from the line he is in,” Anderson notes. “If you're combining and you want the Spirit to autonomously till the field you have harvested, you can select that mode.”

Another feature will help combat soil compaction. “These bigger tractors are compacting the soil and creating a problem,” he says. “Instead of trying to add weights, we made the whole tubular frame a water tank so you just add thousands of pounds of water to the tractor to make it heavier. If you need less weight, you just open up the valve to let out the water.”

Because the Spirit is being built with all off-the-shelf parts, maintenance and repairs will be kept to a minimum.

“Our objective was to be able to have the farmer repair their tractor in two hours,” says Anderson. “We only have two parts to the whole drive train. We have an engine generator module and a wheel motor module. Both can be replaced in less than two hours.”

The Spirit tractor will have a service life of 25,000 hours with a 500-hour service interval. The engine manufacturer warranties the engine for 5 years and 5,000 hours of use with a 500-hour service interval. There are basically no grease fittings – all the bearings are oil lubed.

Cost and availability

While Anderson and his team have developed an interesting concept, as Gittins mentioned earlier, adoption of technology is largely driven by its price tag. So what will it cost to own a Spirit tractor?

“The big tractors today are priced at around $1,000 per horsepower. We think we can sell ours for $500 per horsepower,” says Anderson.

How soon can farmers expect to see these machines in the marketplace? “Two full-scale production units are being built in St. Michael, Minnesota,” he says. “The first one will be on display and we expect the second one will be doing field demonstrations at the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo, North Dakota, this month.”

Ultimately, tractors will be produced by the Autonomous Tractor Corporation, which is based in Fargo, North Dakota. The plan is to build 25 tractors in 2013 for field testing.

In addition, there will be no dealers. The company expects to build six plants across North America, which will directly support customers. “We found that about 90% of our market will be within 200 miles of these six plants,” he notes. “If you have a failure and don't have a spare part, you can either pick it up at the plant or someone will meet you halfway.”

Are Anderson and his team on to something? Only time will tell.

“This appears to be great technology but I am skeptical about how it will perform,” says Gittins. “Even with good results running in the Red River Valley, that is a far stretch from the odd-shaped and contoured fields of southwest Iowa.”

Time line for adoption

As finding and keeping quality workers becomes increasingly more difficult in farm country, farmers will be forced to look at the alternatives.

Yet, those alternatives come with legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

“I wonder if the potential farmer buyer has discussed driverless tractors with their insurance company,” questions Lowenberg-DeBoer. “Would the companies be willing to provide liability coverage for farms using such equipment? What would be the added cost of covering driverless equipment? Would insurance companies require fencing or other safety measures to reduce the risks?”

In the end, the successful adoption of this type of technology – whether it comes from John Deere, Case IH, AGCO or the Autonomous Tractor Corporation – ultimately lies with the farmer.

“Farmers have to weigh the cost of another person in the tractor doing the monitoring who has the same capabilities we desire in sensors,” notes Case IH's Trevor Mecham. “The operator is going to hit the brakes 99% of the time. Faulty sensors don't give you the opportunity for a second chance.”

“Over the next five to 10 years, the use of these technologies will grow,” says Reiter. “Maybe telematics will grow faster than autonomous products, but in the future we will see both on ag machinery. The question is to what extent and in what kind of application. The acceptance of this technology mostly depends on the benefit the farmer will get.”

Read more about

Machinery Talk

Most Recent Poll

How much of your 2016 corn crop is planted?