Just outside of Clarksdale, Miss., less than 15 miles from Hopson Plantation, where decades ago one of the first mechanical cotton pickers ushered in an agricultural equipment revolution, Andrew Belvedresi extended his combine’s auger and began making a dump to a grain cart being pulled by a driverless tractor — yes, a driverless tractor.
People stood by their pickup trucks to take iPhone videos of the next equipment revolution in farming — autonomous technology. “It’s fascinating, and a little strange, to watch a tractor pass by you with no driver,” says Taylor Fleming, CEO, Delta Precision Systems, an authorized dealer of the AutoCart software system created by SmartAg. “Although it’s still in the beta testing stage, we firmly believe this will be commercially available by June of next year.”
Safety, costs, and the future
After a successful dump, Belvedresi touched the iPad again, sending another command to the control unit inside the 8270 R series John Deere tractor. The tractor accelerated forward, slowly turned away from the combine, followed the established A/B line, eventually stopping next to the grain truck to be unloaded. “People have so many questions about this technology,” says Fleming. “One of the first ones is always related to safety, and there are redundancies of safety features in the system.”
A boundary of the field under harvest is initially mapped out on an iPad, Android, or Windows device. If the tractor gets to the edge of that boundary, it will shut down. Exclusion zones may also be placed around things like well motors, risers, or any other stationary objects in the field that may be in the path of the tractor. “Once those zones are established, the tractor will drive around and avoid them,” says Fleming. “Anytime the control unit encounters an error message, it immediately shuts down the tractor.”
A radar device mounted on the front of the tractor will stop the machine if it detects an object like a vehicle, person, animal, or anything else that does not have an exclusion zone around it. “The combine driver or anyone in the field with a remote ‘Estop’ switch may also shut the tractor down at any time,” says Fleming.
Currently, the grain truck driver, or someone else, will have to off-load the grain cart and place the tractor back in autonomous mode to allow the combine driver to send another sync to make the next dump. The system is currently limited to John Deere 8000R series tractors.
The final price for the AutoCart will be determined later this year, but the complete system is estimated to cost around $50,000. “The goal is to expand the system to more platforms for various makes and models,” says Fleming. “I’ve already heard discussions surrounding AutoTill, AutoPlant, AutoApply, and AutoHarvest. The technology is coming, and we anticipate it will be adopted not to replace laborers, because farmers have enough problems keeping farm labor as it is, but to allow them to assign workers to other tasks like rowing up fields for the next season or planting winter wheat.”