Farm Progress

Company adapts its self-driving technology used for military platoons to address driver shortage in agriculture.

Andy Castillo

March 21, 2024

4 Min Read
Trucks at a construction site
PLATOONING: Kratos Defense & Security Solutions’ driverless technology lets one driver in the front lead a group of unmanned vehicles. The tech was initially designed for military operations and has been retrofitted for the ag sector. Kratos Defense & Security Solutions

Reliable labor is hard to come by these days. Self-driving technology could alleviate some of the pressure by taking over more menial tasks around the farm, such as operating sprayers and caravanning tractor trailers.

The latter, according to Maynard Factor, vice president of business development for Kratos Defense & Security Solutions’ unmanned systems division, holds a unique opportunity for farmers. Kratos’ self-driving technology is used for military platoon trips, where a few driverless vehicles follow one that’s driven by a person. Now, Kratos is repositioning for the agricultural marketplace.

“Everybody seems to have this same challenge, addressing the driver shortage issue,” Factor says. “We’ve teamed up with Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, a granulated sugar manufacturer in North Dakota. There are seven or eight sugarbeet piles we’re running trucks to.”

Sensors mounted on the driverless vehicle direct mechanical levers that are retrofitted to the truck’s existing controls to make it turn, and go faster or slower. A kit installed on the lead vehicle provides data, acting as a forward waypoint.

The driver can adjust settings such as speed and truck spacing, which is typically 300 to 500 feet. Up to three autonomous trucks (per legislation in Minnesota and North Dakota) can travel together at highway speeds but must be manually turned around when they reach their destination. Factor says the technology works well for regular transport routes like driving product to a local grain elevator.

Long-term focus

Modern self-driving vehicles use technology such as lidar, radar and stereo cameras to stay on the road and avoid hazards. Machine manufacturers envision a future where autonomy comes standard. Kendal Quandahl, precision field team manager for Case IH, highlighted this as a long-term focus for the brand.

“When we look at the evolution of precision tech — from 20-years-ago guidance — to what we could see in the next five, 10, 15 years, it’s building through the path of automation to autonomy,” she says. “We want to make more of the machine do more of the job in a way that’s repeatable, efficient and really better than what we as humans.”

Brad Rosen, co-founder of Nodar, which designs stereo camera self-driving kits, says farm machines are particularly suited for driverless technology because they move at slow speeds. Rosen highlighted “swath follow” activities, like driving a grain cart.

“As long as a piece of machinery has a control system that can be controlled autonomously — that is, the accelerator, the steering and the braking — it could be retrofitted,” Rosen says. “All you need is headlights.”

While some brands design their systems around lidar or radar, Rosen says Nodar uses stereo cameras because they have a long sight range and they’re less expensive than lidar. However, their effectiveness can be hindered by visual obstructions like debris. Nodar’s twin-camera system can calculate up to 50 frames per second, analyzing depth and adjusting the vehicle’s controls accordingly.

Automated spraying

Specialty crop spraying is another repetitive task that could benefit from driverless technology. Sean Sunberg, who leads business integration for high-value crops for John Deere, expands on this opportunity. While there’s potential, vineyards and groves are difficult to navigate due to numerous obstructions.

“You have areas that are fairly remote. You are working in a canopy environment. Oftentimes, you don’t have good cell signal, and reduced or denied GPS,” Sunberg says about GUSS, an electric global unmanned spray system collaboratively launched by John Deere and GUSS Automation.

The machine uses lidar and GPS to detect its surroundings. Before entering the field, operators set GPS boundaries and create maps. Then, using telemetry and built-in sensors, the vehicle navigates on its own.

“Lidar is scanning at all times. It identifies obstacles. It’s basically looking out 30 feet in front of the machine. It knows, based on the algorithm we’ve built into it, what a tree trunk looks like,” Sunberg says.

The technology lets farmers do more with less. “One person can supervise up to eight machines at a time. You’ll be busy, for sure, but you can do it,” Sunberg says. “You will have someone bringing chemical [to refill the machines] when needed. That’s really the premise of GUSS. You want almost constant uptime. You want to be running and spraying for 45 minutes to an hour.”

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About the Author(s)

Andy Castillo

Andy Castillo started his career in journalism about a decade ago as a television news cameraperson and producer before transitioning to a regional newspaper covering western Massachusetts, where he wrote about local farming.

Between military deployments with the Air Force and the news, he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University, building on the English degree he earned from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He's a multifaceted journalist with a diverse skill set, having previously worked as an EMT and firefighter, a nightclub photographer, caricaturist, features editor at the Greenfield Recorder and a writer for GoNomad Travel. 

Castillo splits his time between the open road and western Massachusetts with his wife, Brianna, a travel nurse who specializes in pediatric oncology, and their rescue pup, Rio. When not attending farm shows, Castillo enjoys playing music, snowboarding, writing, cooking and restoring their 1920 craftsman bungalow.

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