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Will a Driverless System Be Part of Your Machinery Line-up in the Not-So-Distant Future?

When technology replaced the horse with horsepower, there was still one common denominator: the driver in the seat. For many farmers, it was in the seat of a tractor rather than a car where they learned to drive for the first time. It was part of life as a farm kid, but it was also a rite of passage.

As individual farms have grown in acres and the skilled labor pool has shrunk, technology evolves once again to help the next generation of farmers push the efficiency envelope.

“That’s when we started asking how we could help farmers with that problem,” says Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, Kinze Manufacturing’s vice president and chief marketing officer. “What we came up with was the autonomous technology solution, which we introduced in 2011.”

Originally developed in a lab setting using computer simulation, Kinze engineers partnered with Jaybridge Robotics, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to bring the technology from the lab to the farm field for testing and refinement. The project married three existing technologies – GPS, automation, and sensing – to create a system designed to reduce the need for skilled labor by taking the human element out of the tractor cab.

Since its introduction, significant enhancements have been made to the system’s real-time path-planning software, which allows it to dynamically determine the optimal path and avoid obstacles. All of the hardware has been updated. A tablet computer has also been added in the combine, which features a new user interface for complete control of the system.

“As new technology comes out, we are continually refining the system and working toward getting it to a commercial product,” notes Brian McKown, Kinze’s chief operating officer.

Farmer feedback

In the fall of 2012, Kinze put the technology into the hands of three Illinois farm operations. This year marks the third season each will be running the system.

Kent Armstrong, who grows corn and soybeans near Cameron, Illinois, is one of the farmers still using the technology today. He says the system is simple to operate and has been very accurate.

“At times, it’s hard to find somebody with the skill needed to run a grain cart,” he says. “This system has definitely reduced the stress of finding someone good at doing that. It also eliminates the spilled grain because it’s spot on.”

Central to the technology’s development is safety. “We are not going to do this unless we are 100% convinced it is safe,” says Luc van Herle, former director of global sales and service for Kinze.

“We keep thinking of all the possible ways an operator could mess this up, and we’ve added even more safety measures this year,” he says.

“Safety has not been a concern at all,” notes Armstrong. “There seems to be great safety features in place.”

Farmers also offered insight on system enhancements. “One farmer said he normally runs several carts in the same field following the combine. He asked if our system could do that,” notes van Herle. “It was on our long-term plan, but we moved it to our short-term plan.”

Time line

There’s a certain segment that’s ready and anxious for this technology, says McKown. “As you see it become more prevalent in other areas, like automobiles, the comfort level will go up and really begin to bring the cost of the technology down.”

According to van Herle, the company’s strategy for the technology is on track.

“We have a multiyear rollout plan and are right on schedule,” he says. “After next year, we might possibly be ready to release it. This is very advanced technology, so we have to take it one step at a time.”

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