By itself, the tractor planting corn in Shane Bristol's Nebraska field was enough to draw attention. Its yellow paint and centrally mounted cab stand out among fields traditionally planted with red and green machines.
However, it's when you look in the cab that it really stands out. Sabanto Ag CEO Craig Rupp is in the driver's seat, but the tractor — a JCB Fastrac pulling an 18-row Harvest International planter with 20-inch rows — is driving and steering itself. It's doing so with the help of Sabanto hardware and software, designed by Rupp and Sabanto chief technology officer Kyler Laird.
Full autonomy isn't feasible just yet — while the JCB autonomously planted Bristol's field and several others in the Midwest this spring, Rupp manned the cab, hopping outside occasionally to check seeding depth and spacing.
Meanwhile, Laird monitored from a computer screen in an RV — set up as a kind of mobile command center. Currently, Rupp says, Sabanto is undertaking a proof of concept.
"At the present time, we drive it out to the field, we do the headlands or the end rows,” Rupp says. “The first pass of the headlands we do manually, and the subsequent passes of the headlands I sit in the tractor and we guide it through the parallel path, and the internal area of the field is done autonomously. So, we're not all the way there yet. And seed tending is all done manually."
This year, they're hoping to cover a total of 10,000 acres — including planting, tillage and other operations. This includes planting 200 acres of soybeans for Bristol.
Autonomy added on
But this isn't a tractor built to be autonomous from the ground up. Laird notes Sabanto's contribution includes hardware such as computer interfaces and software, which he's been using for several years on his own farm in Indiana.
Other components include off-the-shelf hardware, such as a navigation receiver and technology already being used by autonomous cars to detect and avoid obstacles — such as lidar, radar and various cameras.
Rupp notes multiple methods are used to shut the tractor down if it leaves its set path or is at risk of running into a fence or center pivot.
"Kyler is sitting in the RV, looking at the operations, and I'm out there with a visual,” Rupp says. “I have a kill switch on me that in a separate RF [radio frequency] link I can shut it down at the drop of a hat.”
Rupp also receives notifications on his Apple Watch if the tractor strays off course — in addition to updates on fuel, RPMs and engine temperature.
"We have a geofence, so the tractor can't go outside the field itself,” Rupp says. “If it attempts to go outside the boundary, it shuts down and notifies me."
Why the JCB tractor? Laird explains, "It's the only tractor that fits our needs."
"For this mission, I wanted to be off the shelf as much as possible,” he says. “I didn't want to tinker or modify it. So, I wanted something we could load up on a trailer and haul around any time of day, no wide-load problems. It has a short height and width."
The JCB is only about 17 feet in length and has a three-point hitch on the front, which Laird says helps load it onto the Donahue trailer they used to transport it across the country.
It also has four-wheel steering, four-wheel drive, crab steering and adjustable suspension, making it easy to maneuver. It's also capable of road speeds of 40 mph and a maximum horsepower of about 220 — enough to pull a 10,000-plus-pound planter.
Autonomy as a service
However, don't expect to buy a Sabanto-equipped tractor for yourself anytime soon. Rupp and Laird plan to sell a service rather than a product.
"One of the big things I'm after is utilization,” Laird says. “I don't see how we get that utilization if you sell a product where it sits in a guy's shed much of the time. A lot of this happened because I kept going out to my machine shed every year, and I'd hear about people planting in Texas or even southern Indiana. And I would think, 'I'm going to be another week or two. My machine's sitting here not doing anything.' That just feels like an awful use of resources."
"Let's say you have a wet spring, and it suddenly gets dry, you want to get your field planted. Everyone is going to want that service from the local custom planter," he adds. "That local person will not be able to scale easily. Our thinking is, if we're working over different geographic areas, we're going to have a fleet, and we can move to areas that are fit to plant."
The service, expected to be available within the next two years, likely will cost about $20 per acre.
Part of the testing process has been adjusting to different agronomic practices in different regions. For example, the heavy residue on irrigated corn fields is a challenge unique to Nebraska — and Bristol's was the first irrigated field planted by the autonomous tractor.
"Really, farming practices differ every 100 miles, and we have to be cognizant of that and adapt to that," Bristol says. "I think that's one reason we can't autonomize everything right away, and we can't take the farmer out of the equation."
"Shane was instrumental in instructing us to adjust things like row cleaners and planting depth," Rupp adds. "It was a learning experience for me, and that's exactly one of the reasons we wanted to do this. We wanted to go out, get some experience in different locations. Actually dropping a 30-foot planter in the Nebraska soil was invaluable for us."