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  • Dusty Sonnenberg

Autonomy in Agriculture is more than self-driving tractors

Updated: May 27, 2022

Autonomous vehicles, while not yet familiar, are also not a foreign concept in agriculture. All the major OEM players have their own unique version of autonomous vehicles, either as a concept or an alpha or beta prototype or somewhere in the testing and demonstration phases.

While the possibilities connected with autonomous agricultural equipment are endless, the primary interest in adoption at this point is to mitigate a skilled labor/equipment operator shortage. One reason equipment autonomy has been met with skepticism in the industry is trust. Trusting autonomous agricultural field operations from a safety and liability standpoint and ensuring all the functions of the given operation are completed accurately is understandably a concern on producers’ minds.

The technology has been demonstrated at numerous locations in the past year across the country. “When Raven acquired two companies in 2019, it started to build the pathway to Autonomy,” said Paul Bruns, Product Specialist with Raven Industries. “The acquisition of Smart Ag and DOT have started to pave the way for Raven to bridge the gap of labor and move faster into Autonomy. Realistically we are trying to help solve the labor constraints agriculture faces.”

The idea behind incorporating autonomy is as simple as working smarter, not harder. “What we are trying to do is find the best way to reallocate the people and resources we have and let the technology handle some of the more mundane tasks and let the individual do a more highly valued skill that may take some customization,” said Bruns. “A lot of the autonomous technology being used in agriculture comes from the technology used in the automotive industry when it comes to the driverless technology being use there. We also use cellular technology and high-speed internet to share data back and forth.”

Safety around autonomous vehicles is paramount in everyone’s minds. “Safety comes first,” said Bruns. “This equipment is not running autonomously on public roads. It is only being used in a farmer’s field with a field boundary map that sets the limits it can operate within. It is also constantly supervised by the farmer in a control vehicle or another operator.” There are numerous “kill buttons” on the autonomous vehicle and also in the command vehicle for safety reasons. The autonomous tractor is also equipped with radar sensors that can detect objects 150 feet away and several cameras facing downward and forward to detect and help identify obstacles in the past. If an obstacle is detected, the tractor will begin slowing down and stop at a distance of 10 meters (30 feet) away and wait for further instructions.

Three words often used when explaining autonomous technology are connect, control, and optimize. The use of autonomous agricultural equipment that has been demonstrated most frequently in the Midwest has been with a grain cart. Cellular technology allows the command vehicle to connect with the autonomous vehicle to communicate. The tractor pulling the grain cart syncs with the combine during set-up. It will then match the combine speed and position while unloading on the go.

A coverage map is used and shared between vehicles, so the autonomous tractor knows where to drive and where not to as it selects a path to return from the staging area back to the combine. The farmer in the command vehicle (which is the combine) can control the autonomous tractor throughout the process. By simply hitting a nudge button, the combine operator can move the tractor and grain cart ahead, back, or toward the combine or out away from the combine to allow the grain cart to be topped off. Once synced, the autonomous tractor will automatically match any changes in the combine ground speed during the unloading process. It can match the speed all the way to a complete stop. When the combine is finished unloading, and the cart is full, it is commanded to return to the staging area. Once at the staging area, a second person will enter the tractor and take control to unload the grain cart into the trucks. After unloading is complete, control of the tractor is returned to the combine operator (control vehicle). This optimizes manpower because the combine operator is in control during autonomous operations, and a truck driver could take manual control when unloading the cart into the trucks. This eliminates the need for a third person in the tractor to pull the grain cart through the field.

Efficiency is optimized by sharing a connected workflow.

“The combine operator has the ability to simply drop a pin on a map to identify a meeting point or unloading area, and the autonomous vehicle automatically determines the best path to get there to match up with the combine to unload on the go,” said Bruns. “The command vehicle always has the ability to accept or modify that path by adding a midpoint.”

“One of the biggest and easiest opportunities we see for future use of autonomy is in tillage practices,” said Bruns. “The planter and harvester will probably be some of the last places it is adopted. Much of that is due to the farmer’s pride in conducting those operations and the level of trust that must be established and experienced before giving up control in those areas.”

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