autonomous tractor in field with combine Austin Keating
NO DRIVER: The tractor represents a tractor pulling a grain cart. Using Smart Ag’s AutoCart software, it’s driverless and controlled by the combine operator.

Autonomous tractor-grain cart system in fields now

A driverless tractor pulling a grain cart is being tested in fields this fall. Check out a video of this tech in action.

Remember the old TV commercials that featured a kid riding a bicycle, hands in the air? The kid would say, “Look, Mom — no hands!” If you happen to live near one of the dozen or so farmers trying out Smart Ag’s AutoCart software this fall, your son or daughter might be saying, “Look, Mom and Dad — no driver!”

The software company recently introduced AutoCart, which allows a tractor to become part of an autonomous system. Without a driver, the tractor can pull a grain cart and perform the same tasks the tractor and grain cart could perform with a driver.

“Labor management is becoming an increasing problem for growers,” says Justin Heath, chief marketing officer for Smart Ag. “With good-quality labor becoming harder to find, we believe our technology which allows you to control a driverless tractor in the field becomes valuable.”

Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for Smart Ag, adds: “We’re talking about a significant revolution in agriculture. The software allows you to have a fully autonomous tractor pulling a grain cart. The combine operator is in control of the tractor and grain cart from the combine cab.”

Current status
Smart Ag, based in Ames, Iowa, demonstrated the new technology at the 2018 Farm Progress Show near Boone, Iowa. The cloud-based system, which uses Google technology, delivers control of the grain cart to the person sitting in the combine seat, as promised.

 

The software comes as an aftermarket kit that can be installed on an existing tractor. Once installed, the tractor is fully automated, enabling the grain cart that it’s pulling to go wherever it’s directed to go. The price range is expected to be $35,000 to $40,000 per kit.

Barglof notes that the goal is to have 10 to 12 autonomous tractors pulling grain carts operating on farms this fall. Smart Ag employees will continue testing the software and working with farmers who participate to verify what it can do in the field.

Future plans
Barglof and other company leaders believe this is only the beginning. If they verify that the technology works efficiently and saves labor by eliminating the need for someone to drive a grain cart during harvest, as they are confident they will, then more applications will follow soon. Tillage is likely to be the next target for an autonomous system.

However, Barglof doesn’t see it stopping there. The company believes the software can eventually be used to automate planting and spraying operations, as well.

This isn’t the first time a company has demonstrated autonomous tractor operations. For example, Kinze has experimented with autonomous planting, and Case IH brought an autonomous tractor without a cab to a recent Farm Progress Show. However, this is believed to be the first time a company has offered an autonomous system as a commercial product.

Smart Ag has 15 full-time employees. In operation since 2015, the company has venture capital backers, including Stine Seed Farms Inc. The plan is to take orders beginning in November for delivery of AutoCart software by the spring of 2019. For more information, email [email protected].

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