Robot-controlled tractors could be headed to a cropfield near you

Eastern Iowa company's driver-less harvesting, planting system reaches test phase

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More than a decade ago, Jon Kinzenbaw envisioned a day when drones would plant and harvest crops on Iowa farms.

Today, that vision has become a reality with the development of a robotic planting and harvesting system by Kinzenbaw's company, Kinze Manufacturing in Williamsburg.

The Kinze Autonomy system is able to complete many tasks with minimal direct human involvement and without a driver operating the tractor. Developed over a four-year period and initially tested on Kinzenbaw family farmland, the add-on system was demonstrated in September for farmers and the news media in Monmouth, Ill.

Rhett Schildroth, Kinze product manager, said the system combines off-the-shelf components such as sensors, existing auto guidance systems for tractors and global positioning system technology with sophisticated computer software.

"The system uses a Kinze grain wagon, any make of row crop tractor and any make of combine or harvester," Schildroth said. "We outfit the tractor and the grain wagon with a series of sensors to determine where it's at and the environment around the tractor and grain cart, and a computer with software that manages the whole process."

Schildroth said the combine operator uses a tablet computer to send commands to the tractor pulling the grain cart.

Video courtesy of Kinze Manufacturing

"When the operator presses a 'Follow' button on their tablet, the autonomous grain cart system follows the combine through the field at a safe distance," Schildroth said. "When the combine operator is ready to unload the grain into the cart, they press the 'Unload' button. The autonomous grain cart system then speeds up and pulls alongside the combine, matching its speed to the combine’s and positioning the cart under the combine unload auger.

"The combine operator can then start filling the cart. The cart and tractor will continue to match the speed of the combine until the cart is filled."

When the combine operator determines the grain cart is full, the "Park" button is pressed, sending the tractor and grain cart system to a predesignated location on the edge of the field. From there, the cart can be unloaded into a semi-trailer for the grain to be hauled away.

"When the harvester operator presses the  'Idle' button, the tractor and grain cart will come to a controlled stop and wait for further instruction," Schildroth said. "You don't use that condition when you're harvesting a high through-put crop like corn, but you might have the system wait at the edge of the field if you're harvesting soybeans and not unloading as often."

Schildroth said the autonomous harvest system was created with efficiency, productivity and cost-savings in mind.

"Farmers are having a hard time finding operators to help them plant in the spring and harvest in the fall who have the skills to operate large equipment," he said. "The availability of people with those skills is becoming a major issue. Many farmers have grown their operations to the point where they cannot handle it with just family members and need to hire outside help.

"As we continue to automate things, it's small productivity steps that help farmers cover more ground in the critical spring and fall periods so they can continue grow their operation."

Schildroth said Kinze has not settled on the number of customers who will test the autonomous harvesting and planting system in 2013. It also has not released a price for the system, which ultimately will be installed by Kinze dealers.

Schildroth said the Kinze Autonomy system, which is designed strictly for off-road use, is equipped with multiple emergency controls to ensure safe operation.

"We have complete control of the tractor's engine, hydraulics and braking system," he said. "There are a series of E-Stops or big red buttons that will immediate stop the system. They are located in the cabs of the combine and tractor as well as around the equipment.

"In addition, we have a remote with an E-Stop that you can use if you're working in the field and for some reason you feel the equipment is getting too close."

Rick Elliott, a Monmouth, Ill., farmer who used the Kinze Autonomy harvesting system this fall, said it worked "incredibly well, but a little slow at this point."

"Its sensors are designed to detect anything in front of it, so its speed through the field is slower than what a human being would do," Elliott said. "They tell us it's a hardware problem and they can work all of that out.

"Other than that, it works perfectly. We were very impressed with it."

Elliott said availability of skilled tractor operators is an issue that the system will address.

"It won't need to leave early to go to a child's ballgame," he said. "It won't get tired late in the day. It will be there, no matter what."

Elliott said he has recommended that the system be enhanced to allow for multiple combines and tractor-grain wagon combinations to speed up the harvest.

"The software developers rode with us in the combine, and they said that should be something they can develop," he said.

Schildroth said Kinze engineers developed the mechanical interfaces, and partnered Jaybridge Robotics of Cambridge, Mass., to develop and test the autonomy system software.

Schildroth said Kinze plans to further refine the autonomous harvesting and planting system before bringing it to the full commercial market. He said dealer personnel also will need to be trained to install the system.

Elliott said cost will be an issue that needs to be addressed for farmers to embrace the technology.

"We tell them that it will replace a skilled job, not the CEO of a corporation," Elliott said. "That will be their next challenge." 

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