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SmartAg on Track for Fall Launch of AutoCart

Industry’s first Level 4 Grain cart autonomy is nearly field ready.

If no one is operating the tractor and grain cart, who does the combine operator yell at during harvest?

It won’t be long before the ag industry finds out.

A year ago, SmartAg discreetly unveiled its autonomous grain cart system with a video on YouTube. By fall, the company had 12 prototype AutoCart systems operating in fields around the country – the first autonomous agricultural vehicles in North America.

After beta testing and improving durability of the hardware and software components, the Ames, Iowa-based start-up plans to release AutoCart on a commercial basis in time for fall 2019 harvest.

Autonomous farming technology, the company believes, is a way to combat labor shortages in rural America, says Justin Heath, chief marketing officer for SmartAg.

It’s not easy to find people to operate tractors and grain carts during harvest. “Often, it’s retired folks who may not be familiar with a tractor cab,” Heath says. “It may be Mom, or a farmer’s 12-year-old son. We’re leveraging them for labor, but that’s not necessarily fixing the problem.”

How it Works

AutoCart is “Level 4 Autonomy,” supervised from the combine cab. When a combine operator is ready to empty the grain bin, the autonomous tractor is summoned from a tablet or smartphone app inside the combine cab. The controller in the tractor is reached via cellular signal. The system includes a 900 mhz radio for long range vehicle-to-vehicle communications too. When the tractor is close enough, a wifi signal puts the tractor in “sync mode,” so the tractor and grain cart mimic the combine’s field movements.

“The combine operator can move the tractor forward or back,” Heath says. “If for whatever reason the combine stops, the tractor stops. It’s a ballet, if you will.”

Once the combine has dumped, the tractor and grain cart will return to the staging point, usually a truck. At that point the tractor won’t unload itself. The truck driver can hop into the cab and unload the grain cart.

“It’s as simple as putting the switch back into manual mode,” Heath says. When the cart is unloaded, the tractor can be put back into autonomous mode, which gives control back to the combine operator.

“There are a lot of complexities in unload mode that we haven’t built into the system,” he adds. However, SmartAg is working on a solution that allows the cart to be unloaded autonomously, perhaps by fall 2020.

Currently, the technology only exists in John Deere 8R tractors. The technology can work in conjunction with most major combine makes and models; they continue to develop systems with other original equipment manufacturers.

Heath says the user interface for the operator is very intuitive. In the tractor there is a switch that allows users to toggle from autonomous mode to conventional mode. The SmartAg hardware and software work “on top of” the Deere controls.

Pricing and Next Steps

At Commodity Classic in late February, SmartAg aims to release more details for this fall’s launch, but the goal is to have systems available by August in preparation for the fall harvest. AutoCart will be available through certified SmartAg dealers. There are 16 such dealers now; the plan is to scale to 25 certified dealers later.

A complete AutoCart will cost roughly $40,000, Heath says. The kit includes SmartHP (the automation kit for the tractor, which includes connection harnesses, equipment, hardware, safety systems, and installation instructions); the SmartNX (hardware to connect the combine or other machine to the cloud and any tractor with SmartHP); AutoCart software (the interface in the combine that controls the grain cart tractor, available in an annual or five-year subscription); and the AAVI Autonomous Farming Platform.  

Official pricing and details should be released at Commodity Classic 2019 in Orlando.

SmartAg continues to fine-tune AutoCart, with two immediate priorities.

First, it is working on autonomous unloading of the grain cart.

Second, the company is developing software and hardware to allow multiple combines to control one tractor and grain cart (or one combine to control multiple grain carts). SmartAg hopes to make this functioanlity available by Fall 2020 harvest, too.

Other features and functions on the priority list include voice command integration from the combine cab, Heath says.

Meanwhile, SmartAg continues to develop new applications.

With Stine Seed founder Harry Stine as one of the company’s major investors, it’s logical that planting would be the next logical application.

“We’re starting to position ourselves to tackle that solution next,” Heath explains.

Ultimately, the future for autonomous ag is wide open: planting, harvesting, spraying, and tillage all are possibilities. “We want to maintain that leadership position. We have to bring more applications to get to the point where we are positioning ourselves as the leading operating system and platform,” he says.

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