Just press play

Ames company unveils driverless tractor technology

BOONE–Look at that tractor. Now look again. Yes, there’s no one sitting in the driver’s seat as it rolls along. An Iowa tech company made Farm Progress Show history with its autonomous tractor demonstration on August 28–an event that attracted national media attention and offered a glimpse into the future of agriculture.

“The first time I saw this it looked like the headless horseman,” said Mark Barglof, chief technical officer for Ames-based Smart Ag, which showcased an aftermarket kit for driverless tractors during field demonstrations at the Farm Progress Show. “When you see this, you feel there’s something really big going on.”

Smart Ag debuted AutoCart, a software application that fully automates a grain cart tractor and can provide farmers with much needed labor assistance during harvest. The result of two and a half years of development, AutoCart and the tractor aftermarket kit offer a simple plug-and-play system.

The technology allows farmers to automate their existing equipment and maximize their capacity and efficiency. As the first cloud-based platform for driverless tractors, this system will also help address the issues of labor and productivity for today’s farmers, said Colin Hurd, Smart Ag’s founder and CEO.

“If there’s one thing the Farm Progress Show has taught us over its 65-year history, it’s that agriculture is at its best when farmers have choices,” said Hurd, who earned his degree in agriculture and business from Iowa State University in 2013.

How does it work?

Smart Ag’s driverless tractor system incorporates a combination of technologies, from cellular to in-field radio. This sophisticated system can be operated with something as common and user-friendly as an iPad tablet computer.

The AutoCart technology allows a combine operator to set staging and unloading locations in a field, adjust speed, monitor location and command the grain cart to synchronize precisely to the speed and direction of the combine. After it is loaded, the AutoCart automatically returns to an unloading point elsewhere in the field.

“The system isn’t hard to learn,” said Barglof, who farms in north-central Iowa.

Once the field boundaries are specified and a destination point is set, just push play.

“The tractor will figure out how to get from point A to point B,” Barglof added.

With a cost of $35,000 to $40,000, AutoCart technology is comparable to retrofitting a sprayer or planter with precision technology, according to Smart Ag.

But is it safe?

“There are sensors and cameras on board that allow the system to ‘see’ the world around it,” Barglof said.

The Smart Ag team has tested its technology in fields from Arizona to states farther north during custom harvesting operations, Barglof noted. Thanks to all the sensors linked to AutoCart, a person can stand in the path of the driverless path, and the equipment will stop before there’s any danger, as company representatives showed during the field demonstrations at the Farm Progress Show.

For added safety, the system was created only for in-field use.

“We want to avoid any highway use, because the technology isn’t designed for this,” Barglof said.

Addressing labor shortage

AutoCart technology, which is currently available for Deere 8000 series tractors, was developed to meet one of the biggest challenges facing many farmers today –critical labor shortages during harvest. The AutoCart system isn’t meant to put people out of work, Barglof said.

“It’s not my goal to for anyone to lose their job. There are tractor cabs, however, that are empty today because farmers can’t find enough help at harvest. This technology offers an option to free up highly skilled labor for other jobs on the farm.”

Interest in the technology is strong, said Justin Heath, chief marketing officer with Smart Ag.

“When a farmer sees this technology in operation for the first time, a lightbulb goes off. Farmers know they don’t have to rely on seasonal help, which can be hard to find, to get the work done,” he said.

Providing innovative solutions to agriculture’s challenges has driven Smart Ag since the company was founded in 2015. The company has garnered investments from Stine Seed Farm Inc., the Ag Startup Engine, Ag Ventures Alliance, Summit Agricultural Group, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Farm Bureau Rural Vitality Fund II and several additional angel investors.

Smart Ag is currently offering aftermarket retrofit kits to automate farm equipment, as well as a commercial grade platform to connect, manage and safely operate any variety of autonomous machinery. Future software applications will be designed for tillage, planting and spraying.

Growing a market

Orders for AutoCart have already been filled for 2018. The Smart Ag development team will be delivering and installing up to 20 systems throughout the Midwest, mid-South and Manitoba, Canada, for use in this fall’s harvest and for post-harvest dealer demonstrations.

“We intentionally limited the number of AutoCart units going out this year,” Heath said. “This will allow us to expand our testing over more acres during harvest, provide more field demos for farmers and build a national dealer network.”

Smart Ag will be expanding its dealer network in the coming months in preparation for a 2019 large-scale commercial launch. So far, the company has dealers in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada.

One of the first AutoCart dealers is Scott Burroughs with Bottom Line Solutions in Morton, Ill., a dealership that represents 15 different companies in the world of precision agriculture. Burroughs said he was immediately impressed with Smart Ag’s vision and practical approach to autonomous technology.

“We’ve seen concept vehicles for years, but this is the first time a farmer can take a tractor from his own shed, turn it into a driverless piece and be more efficient in his operation. Then later, with just the flip of a switch, he can drive it like a normal tractor and carry on with his everyday farming.”

AutoCart is at level 4 within the five levels of autonomous vehicles, Barglof said. This means the technology offers supervised autonomy where drivers can elect — but don’t have to — turn over control of all safety-critical functions.

Will Smart Ag’s technology eventually become integrated into new equipment? Maybe, Barglof said.

“Someday we’d love for this be integrated technology, but that requires a partnership with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM),” he said.

In November 2018, orders AutoCart will be accepted for delivery in spring 2019. For additional information, visit www.Smart-Ag.com.

“By improving efficiency, productivity and profitability, this technology has the potential to deliver significant changes to U.S. crop production,” Hurd said.