This is the year when autonomous vehicles will emerge from research and development tests to farmers’ fields. By harvest, Case IH, John Deere and Kinze plan to have commercialized guidance systems that allow a tractor-and-grain-cart unit to be driven without operator input while unloading combines.

The operator will still be in the tractor cab with Case IH and John Deere systems, which some call supervised autonomy. With both systems, the combine takes over the steering and speed of the tractor pulling the grain cart as it draws near. The Kinze system, which will operate without anyone in the tractor cab, promises to be the first fully autonomous vehicle system for use in annual crops in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a driverless system introduced by Fendt in Europe this fall could be the first autonomous agricultural vehicle system in use in annual crops worldwide, assuming it is available for commercial use by the 2012 planting season. The Fendt system pairs a driverless tractor with an operator-driven tractor, which can remotely steer the following tractor to avoid obstacles.

R&D becomes reality

Autonomous vehicles have been the topic of university research and behind-the-scenes product development by manufacturers for years. But 2011 marked the first product announcements that will turn research and development rumors into reality.

“I believe 2011 may be a tipping point, the beginning of the race for the first commercialized autonomous vehicle,” says Kevin Monk, director of marketing for precision agriculture and construction for Case New Holland. “I believe many of the OEMs have the technical capability today, but are looking at how to ensure that customer value exceeds cost. Supervised autonomy [automated control, but with an operator present] is the first step.”

“John Deere has been exploring autonomous vehicles for many years,” says Robert Dyar, a product manager with the John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group. “Several years ago we showed an autonomous tractor working in a vineyard, so this isn’t anything new to us. Our goal with Machine Sync is to improve the efficiency and productivity of our equipment. Most producers are interested in that.”

Long-term impact

The impact of autonomous vehicles could be dramatic, expanding opportunities to improve productivity while opening the door to reassessing the most efficient equipment size.

“A grower could have three or four autonomous systems and plant around the clock,” says Susanne Kinzebaw Veatch, vice president of Kinze Manufacturing. “If you run around the clock, you don’t necessarily need a great big planter.”

“The reason farm machinery has gotten larger is that we needed to cover more acres with one operator,” Monk adds. “In the future, instead of a 60-ft. planter, a farmer might use six 10-ft. planters, still with one operator. If a grower can cover the same linear feet with multiple units, it could mean profound things for the industry.”