The robotic system that operated on Rick Elliott’s farm near Monmouth, Ill., didn’t resemble a robot. Instead, it looked like a typical combine-tractor-and-grain-cart setup—except the tractor moving through the field was empty.

Kinze Manufacturing brought media to western Illinois to witness its new Autonomous Harvest System working in fields on customer farms. This was the second time Kinze had shown its system to the media. The first time was a year ago in an experimental setting at the company’s headquarters in Iowa. Since then, Kinze spent a year improving the system and was ready to show it again and in extended action.

The system worked well that morning. The empty tractor with a Kinze grain cart followed the combine through the field like a puppy dog. When the combine needed unloading, the tractor and cart moved in close beside the combine and maintained perfect position under the auger. After unloading was finished, the tractor and cart drove to a position in the field and awaited further instruction.

Better than human

Kinze loaned the system to three farmers for three weeks for use in their fields. The company installed some electronic equipment in each farmer’s combine and provided John Deere 8530 tractors already equipped with Kinze’s autonomous equipment.

The farmers all said the system worked well for them. “It was easier to use than I expected—a piece of cake,” reported Joe Krupps, Galesburg, Ill. “The tractor followed me close and was always there when I needed it. It frees up a person to do something else.”

At the media event, the precision and agility of the system was demonstrated when the combine operator drove in a circle while unloading. The grain cart remained precisely positioned under the combine auger. Not a kernel of corn was spilled. “I don’t think a human could do that without spilling some corn,” Krupps adds.

The human element is one of the reasons for developing the autonomous system, reports Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, Kinze vice president and chief marketing officer. Skilled labor to drive large, sophisticated equipment is getting difficult to find. Plus, the system provides consistent accuracy 24 hours a day if needed.

How it operates

The Autonomous Harvest System includes the combine with an operator and the tractor with a grain cart. Rhett Schildroth, Kinze product manager, explains that the combine operator instructs the tractor/grain cart from a Samsung tablet computer. The tablet provides an aerial view of the field with the combine and tractor locations. It will also switch to a camera view from the tractor.

The operator can give the tractor four commands from the tablet, Schildroth says. One command is “follow” so the tractor/grain cart follows the combine in the field at a safe distance.

The “unload” command directs the tractor to accelerate and position the cart under the combine auger. The tractor matches the speed and position of the combine so the wagon remains perfectly placed under the auger.

When the cart is full, the operator pushes “park” and the tractor/grain cart moves to a predetermined location in the field to await further instruction. “Idle” is a fourth command used to bring the tractor to a controlled stop wherever it is and stay there until further instruction.

When the grain cart needs unloading into a semi, a person takes control of the tractor when it is parked by flipping down the stairs to the tractor cab. This action automatically shuts down the tractor’s autonomous system and moves to manual operation, Schildroth says. To return to autonomous operation, the stairs must be folded back up into place.

Equipment required

The Autonomous Harvest System will be sold as a kit that can be installed on a tractor and combine. The tractor requires most of the equipment, which ties into the transmission, steering and braking systems, Schildroth says, and will need to be specific for different brands and models. He says Kinze plans to develop individual vehicle kits.

“The brains of the system are high-speed, ruggedized computers that are housed in the tractor,” Schildroth explains. “Those brains take all the sensor information and GPS locations and determine in real time the most efficient path the tractor must take to reach the combine. And if there’s an obstacle, it takes a path around it if it can, or it stops.”

Schildroth listed other equipment used to safely operate the autonomous system:

■  GPS is needed in both the combine and the tractor to provide location and positioning information.

■  Inertial sensors are installed on the tractor to detail the dynamics of what’s happening, Schildroth explains.

■  If the vehicle is tilting, the system will compensate  for it.

■  Wheel encoders on the tractor report speed.

■  Lidar sensors on the tractor are sophisticated scanners to tell what is immediately around the vehicle.

■  Radar on the tractor offers a view of what is further ahead of the vehicle.

■  Cameras installed on the tractor do a visual recognition to identify shapes that could be human or animal. The combine operator can check a camera view from the tablet computer.

■ A communications module keeps the combine talking to the autonomous system. 

Safety features

“Is it safe?” is the first question people ask when they see no one is in the tractor cab. Schildroth says Kinze has taken many steps to address safety concerns, ranging from the hinged stairs to the sensors, radar, etc. that halt the vehicle when obstacles appear.

The system also has emergency stop buttons. The combine operator can push an emergency stop button installed in the combine cab. Hand-held emergency stop buttons also may be used by workers in the field. These will immediately stop the system.

“Robotic vehicles operate just as safely at the end of a long 16-hour day as at the beginning,” Schildroth says. “Not many humans can make that claim.”

The future

Schildroth says Kinze is on a “very controlled rollout” of the autonomous system. The company has not decided how many farmers will test the system next year. And pricing has not been set. But the company does plan to market the system in the future.

Kinze also is working on an autonomous system for planters.

“This type of technology is certainly appealing from an efficiency standpoint,” Schildroth says. “It allows farmers to expand the acreage they cover without hiring more help.

“As we design these, we are ending up with systems that are safer than existing systems. For example, we have a full-time, 360-degree monitoring of the tractor. A human can’t do that,” he says.

But farmers will need to be convinced that the system is safe. “People are skeptical of the technology until they see it running,” Schildroth adds. “But after they see it, they don’t ask me if it works. They ask how much will it cost and when can they get it delivered.”