STARTUP HOPES TO BRING DRIVER­LESS TRAC­TORS INTO THE MAIN­STREAM

The Gulf Today - Business - - SPECIAL REPORT -

NEW YORK: Seven years ago, three of the largest farm-equip­ment com­pa­nies in Amer­ica said they were close to in­tro­duc­ing tech­nol­ogy that would al­low farm­ers to use driver­less trac­tors pulling grain carts dur­ing the har­vest.

To­day, no such prod­uct is widely avail­able, and no neart­erm prom­ises are be­ing made by John Deere, Case IH or Kinze Man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“Au­tonomous sys­tems are a proven con­cept and are us­able in the ag in­dus­try,” said Phil Jen­nings, ser­vice man­ager at Wil­liams­burg, Iowa-based Kinze. “But at this point it’s truly a mat­ter of tim­ing to find the right bal­ance of use case and cost.”

Driver­less trac­tors have long been on the cusp, but they are still not widely used, bogged down by safety con­cerns, le­gal ob­sta­cles, the dif­fi­cul­ties of of­fer­ing tech­ni­cal sup­port to a large num­ber of farm­ers us­ing a sin­gle prod­uct, and lin­ger­ing doubts about the busi­ness case.

The tech­nol­ogy ex­ists. Trac­tors are al­ready self-steer­ing. A farmer in In­di­ana built an au­to­mated sys­tem that he op­er­ates with a Plays­ta­tion con­troller, and the ma­jor trac­tor man­u­fac­tur­ers have all de­vel­oped some type of au­tonomous trac­tor. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of John Deere and Case IH did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

At the Farm Progress Show in Au­gust, the na­tion’s largest farm trade show, one of the ex­hibitors was Smartag, an Iowa startup that is com­mer­cial­iz­ing a sys­tem that al­lows a farmer, from a com­bine, to sum­mon an au­tonomous trac­tor pulling a grain cart. The prod­uct, called Au­to­cart, costs about $40,000.

Colin Hurd, the founder of Smartag, said trans­fer­ring har­vested grain from the com­bine to a grain cart is one of the key bot­tle­necks in farm­ing. It’s tough to find some­one to drive that ex­tra trac­tor. Some kids come back from col­lege to help. Re­tired neigh­bors drive the trac­tor. Spouses take days off work.

“The chal­lenge is that if they’re op­er­at­ing for even 20 per­cent of the har­vest sea­son with­out a grain cart op­er­a­tor, they’re los­ing an in­cred­i­ble amount of money,” Hurd said. “Ev­ery time the com­bine fills up they’ve got to go drive it to the edge of the field and dump it. So it slows down the en­tire har­vest process. You’re also go­ing to burn more fuel be­cause that com­bine keeps run­ning that whole time, and ev­ery en­gine hour you put on that com­bine also re­duces its value sig­nif­i­cantly. It’s a $500,000 ma­chine some­times, so ev­ery hour you put on that com­bine sucks a lot of value out of it.”

Two or three ex­tra days of har­vest can also mean two or three days less of tillage be­fore the ground freezes. A field that was tilled in the fall warms up faster in the spring, so fall tillage is crit­i­cal.

“If they don’t get that done in time, espe­cially in Min­nesota, that de­lays plant­ing,” Hurd said. “There’s a ton of data that shows if you de­lay plant­ing you get less yield.”

Au­to­cart con­sists of soft­ware and hard­ware that al­lows the farmer to sum­mon a trac­tor pulling a grain cart, and al­lows the trac­tor to drive it­self into po­si­tion along­side the com­bine and stay there as the com­bine keeps mov­ing and emp­ties grain into the cart. It also in­cludes sen­sors that can spot ob­sta­cles and peo­ple and avoid them. The sys­tem works with John Deere 8000 se­ries trac­tors. Five Au­to­carts have been in­stalled. Ten deal­ers have signed up to sell the sys­tem, in­clud­ing one in Fargo.

For farm­ers, the idea is in­trigu­ing, said Zach Rada, a farm busi­ness man­age­ment in­struc­tor at Ridge­wa­ter Col­lege in Will­mar. “It’s one less per­son to pay. It’s one less per­son to find,” Rada said. “It’s a la­bor is­sue as much as any­thing.”

Kyler Laird, a corn and soy­bean farmer in north­west In­di­ana, posted a video two years ago of an au­to­mated trac­tor sys­tem he made. He nudges the trac­tor into place with a Plays­ta­tion con­troller, and then locks it to a path and speed. His sys­tem doesn’t have the self-driv­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of the Au­to­cart, but it was im­pres­sive enough to draw the at­ten­tion of peo­ple across the in­dus­try.

Laird said the chal­lenge is to cre­ate a prod­uct that’s user­friendly for farm­ers who want to be able to use it once a year with­out hav­ing to think too hard about it.

“It’s one thing to make some­thing for a fac­tory floor, where peo­ple are com­ing in and they’re do­ing the same thing ev­ery day,” Laird said. “Farm­ers ex­pect to pull the trac­tor out of the shed when it’s time to har­vest and that grain cart needs to be ready to go.”

Smartag is staffing up to pro­vide ser­vice to cus­tomers who buy its prod­uct, and that will be the big­gest chal­lenge, said Laird and Stu­art Bir­rell, a pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural engi­neer­ing at Iowa State Univer­sity.

“It is much eas­ier to de­velop the sys­tem than the sub­stan­tial re­sources needed for tech­ni­cal sup­port if it be­comes a prod­uct,” Bir­rell said.

Bir­rell pre­dicted that Smartag will most likely be ac­quired by one of the big man­u­fac­tur­ers, or its tech­nol­ogy will be li­censed to them.

“While small-ven­ture firms can move very quickly, I would not bet on them against the larger OEMS (orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers),” Bir­rell said. “The OEMS have much larger re­sources and ef­fec­tively con­trol the in­for­ma­tion on both the trac­tor and com­bine that is needed to co­or­di­nate the cart and com­bine.”

Hurd said Smartag “fully in­tends” to launch Au­to­cart com­mer­cially in 2019, and he hopes to in­tro­duce a sec­ond prod­uct that would en­able trac­tors to till fields au­tonomously.

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