Courtesy Photo

AutoCart allows farmers to operate a driverless grain cart tractor from the cab of the combine.

By Connie Sieh Groop

Special to the Farm Forum

While many companies have sought to provide autonomous systems to the farming community, this year marked the first such system running on a limited basis in the field.

AutoCart allows farmers to operate a driverless grain cart tractor from the cab of the combine.

“We have a limited release, roughly 10 to 12 systems, that are up and functioning this fall, trying to get through the weather challenges,” said Justin Heath, CEO of SmartAg. “We have some running in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Manitoba.”

Launched at the Farm Progress Show this summer, AutoCart is the software system which monitors and controls an autonomous grain cart tractor. The app allows setting staging and unloading locations in a field, adjusting speed, monitoring locations, and commanding the grain cart to sync.

The SmartAg kit for AutoCart comes with an automation kit, hardware to connect machines to the cloud and tractor, the software and the overall farm, field and machinery platform for autonomous farming.

Heath said the system went through two beta tests last fall. The company wants to get more exposure in the field for the system and test the internal support.

“All the right pieces are in place for this, and we’re showing we are a real company and able to ship product,” Heath said. ”The product is working as advertised. If the systems run into technical gaps, we want to fix them before a broadscale commercial launch next year.”

The company started just shy of three years ago. It went from protype to a limited release in two and a half years.

The company will move into a new leased structure in Ames, Iowa, this fall so they can continue to add people and have room for assembly. The company has 19 employees on staff and plans to double those jobs in 2019. For efficiency’s sake, components are sourced from suppliers, with some assembly and all of the kitting done in-house. That lets the engineering team focus on the software platform the company is building.

In a nutshell, the system is considered Level 4 supervised autonomy. The grain cart is driverless using a simple interface. In a traditional harvest setting, three people are needed. One to drive the combine, one the grain cart and one the truck. This system puts the control of the grain cart in the combine cab, leveraging that platform.

The technology is widely embraced across the demographics because of a labor scarcity. For a 58-year-old farmer with 3,000 acres to harvest, finding help can be a challenge. For the three or four weeks of harvest, some tap their 12-year-old son to drive grain cart. In other cases, they call on their 75-year-old mom. The driverless cart provides a simple, affordable solution for many in the ag community. The ballpark price range is $35,000 to $40,000. Many farmers want to see how it works for a year before they commit.

While the autonomous equipment will alleviate a problem with labor, the company plans to focus on other field issues, such as compaction. The next step is to likely provide an auto-till product and would scale that with more applications at the farm gate.

Auto sync is one aspect of the technology. Heath said, “We use our own proprietary syncing design and software. That allows us to control any web-enabled device from the combine, such as an iPad, which allows the grain cart tractor to follow a path through the fields, avoid obstacles and unload on the go. With a variety of communication methods, it knows where to be to unload.”

“This puts our flag in the sand and establishes us in the autonomous field,” Heath said. “By being a small company, we can innovate and change rapidly. That allows us to leap-frog ahead of the more established companies to explore the tech in other areas like planting and spraying.”

“We are excited to see what the future holds for ag and the doors that will be opened for ag producers,” Heath said.

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