Smart Ag: welcome to the present

Ames-based company has developed software to run a grain cart

-Photo by Kriss Nelson
Colin Hurd, left, president and founder of Smart Ag Technology Company, and Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for the company, stand in their office located at Iowa State University’s Research Park in Ames.

AMES — Colin Hurd, president and founder of Smart Ag Technology Company, could see there was a lack of reliable help for farmers in the fall and decided to try to help solve that issue.

“I realized farmers were really struggling with finding qualified labor during the season,” he said. “It wasn’t so much about finding help, but actually finding help that’s capable of working on the farm and that had experience of running equipment.”

“It’s hard to find those types of people,” Hurd added. “That’s what really led to this challenge.”

He believes the lack of quality labor is hindering producers from being able to grow their operations.

“It’s limiting a lot of their potential because they don’t have the help they need,” he said. “It also costs them money. If they can’t get everything planted in time, or harvested in time, or if they have unqualified operators causing accidents, there’s a lot of challenges with that.”

-Submitted photo
Smart Ag Technology has developed AutoCart, the first cloud-based platform for driverless tractors. Here a driverless tractor pulling a grain cart is following a combine.

Hurd decided the only way to really solve that problem is through automation.

“So what we did was we looked at how do you start this process of introducing a fully driverless tractor into agriculture? If we’re going to do that where is the best place to start?” Hurd asked himself. “Is it for planters, or combines? What makes the most sense?”

“I spent a lot of time with farmers and they all told me they wanted their grain cart automated.”

Hurd said they took the idea and started working with farmers in the field; testing concepts, proving the idea and understanding what it would require from a safety, precision, software and data standpoint.

Fast forward a few years to the fall of 2017, and Smart Ag Technology Company accomplished what many believed to be the impossible: the first cloud-based platform for driverless tractors: AutoCart.

-Submitted photo
Smart Ag Technology has developed AutoCart, the first cloud-based platform for driverless tractors. Here a driverless tractor pulling a grain cart is following a combine.

Hurd said they were able to put two systems out into the field last fall, and will make AutoCart available on a limited basis for the 2018 harvest.

“We are really excited about that,” he said. “It’s pretty sophisticated and what I am excited about is no one has ever done this. It is a big step ahead of where we are at with any auto-steer or precision ag technology today. So it’s really exciting to be able to put something this game-changing out there.”

Hurd said John Deere has a product on the market that allows a combine operator to hold the grain cart next to the combine, but it’s not fully autonomous.

“You have to have a person in the tractor the whole time and drive the tractor to the combine and then the combine holds it there,” he said. “That doesn’t really solve the problem for the farmer because it doesn’t add the ability to remove some of that labor pressure that you have now.”

AutoCart

-Submitted photo
As part of the AutoCart system, the combine operator can set commands in the cab to send the tractor and grain cart to and from the combine to a designated spot in the field.

The AutoCart software system is designed to monitor and control an autonomous grain cart.

The app, according to Hurd, will allow producers to set staging and unloading locations in a field, adjust speed, monitor location and command the grain cart to sync.

He added the AutoCart software system is currently focused for use on John Deere tractors.

“Our goal is it will work across all brands,” he said. “It doesn’t matter too much on the type of combine right now. One of the key requirements is you have an auto-steer steering system and a GPS system on your tractor.”

Specifically, a John Deere StarFire system.

The company is also putting its focus for the system to work on John Deere R 8000 and 9000 series tractors for this year’s limited release.

However, there is not a requirement for the grain cart used.

If a producer is interested in the AutoCart software system but their tractor doesn’t fit that particular series or brand, Hurd recommends the visit the company’s website and make the request to have the system made for their tractor.

How was it developed?

When he started Smart Ag Technology Company, Hurd said it was just him and a lot of ideas, and he started to gather as much information as he could.

The first step was to take a small electric car and hook it up to a GPS system to see if it could be controlled before trying it on the tractor.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” said Hurd. “It started with the real basic stuff. Can we make a computer tell a tractor where to go on a map? Until that was done, we didn’t focus on anything else.”

It was just one step at a time from there. A lot of those steps, Hurd said, happened on the farm.

“We didn’t start trying to create simulation-type systems until we had actually proved it works on the farm, in an actual tractor, out in the field,” he said. “That’s an advantage. We are a very focused team and have worked two years on the development. We worked very hard and very closely to the farms.”

User-friendly

Hurd said one of the experiences they had this fall was with one of the farms they were testing with.

The son that had been part of the farm was a little more comfortable with technology. His dad was apprehensive, thinking this level of technology was way beyond his technological capabilities.

“One day he (the dad) was there. He was running the combine that was set up to run the system,” said Hurd. “We wanted to take some video. He had zero idea how to operate the software. We spent 15 minutes in the cab with him; showed him it’s basically five buttons, and by the end of the day, he said, ‘I love this. We are going to use this every single year.'”

Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for Smart Ag Technology Company, emphasized that the software is, indeed, very user-friendly.

“I use a lot of precision ag technology and this is simple and we did that on purpose,” said Barglof. “We don’t need to complicate things.”

Hurd compared it to using and installing other types of precision ag equipment.

“It’s essentially plug and play. You are running wires and plugging stuff in,” he said. “Nothing permanently is hooked up to your machine.”

Barglof said it can take some time getting used to seeing your tractor running autonomously.

“The first time that I sent a tractor over the hill with nobody in it, it was scary,” he said. “It looks like the Headless Horseman, and it really does. It really feels like something is very wrong. But, what I started to realize was that it does the same thing over and over again. So if you tell it go to a point, it will go exactly to that point.”

“Yeah, it’s scary, but at the same time, the system doesn’t get tired,” Barglof added. “It doesn’t text. It’s not going to be distracted.”

“This is a very easy entry point into automation,” added Hurd.

Barglof said the AutoCart software system has been thoroughly tested.

“It’s been ran through thousands of acres,” he said. “We are going to participate in the wheat run this year, in order to get as much field time as we possibly can before the Iowa row crop harvest season starts. By that time, we will have three full harvests. The fourth harvest is the limited release this fall, and by 2019, it will have been through five harvests, and through lots and lots of different fields and conditions.”

How does it work?

To operate the autonomous grain cart, Barglof said a combine operator pushes a button on a tablet in the cab of the combine. The tractor will then locate where the combine is and make the most efficient path to get here.

“You select the head and auger size and anywhere in the field, the tractor will calculate a route to the combine,” he said. “Once it gets to the combine, it will lock into the sync position.”

The combine operator has the ability to move the grain cart underneath the auger in four different directions.

“You move the cart, not your auger,” Barglof said. “The combine operator can speed up or slow down as much as he wants and the grain cart is synced and it will speed up and slow down along with it. The combine operator is controlling how he wants the grain cart loaded.”

Hurd said the tractor and grain cart will hold itself there until the combine operator is done and hits a button and sends the tractor to its location, whether that be its unloading area or its synced location.

The synced and unload locations can be moved as progress is made throughout the field.

Hurd added that the AutoCart software system will take into account where the crop is, waterways, or other obstructions, and follow the boundaries created.

“It will automatically plan a path through all of that to get to where it needs to get to in the field,” he said.

Cost

Hurd said they are very proud of their cost.

“This is not expensive technology,” he said. “It’s less than the cost, in a lot of cases, than putting precision planting on your planter and that is something we are really proud of. We did not want to do this unless we could sell it at a price we knew would return a farmer’s money.”

He added the automation kit for the tractor, the SmartHP — which includes all connection harnesses, equipment, hardware, safety systems and installation instructions to automate a tractor for use with a grain cart or other equipment in the future — is $25,000.

The SmartNX, which is the hardware to connect a combine or any other machine to the cloud and any tractor with the SmartHP is $5,000.

The AutoCart software application, which is the interface used in the combine to control the grain cart tractor is $2,500 a year or $10,000 for five years.

Those interested in pre-ordering the AutoCart software system can visit smart-ag.com.

What’s the future?

Smart Ag Technology Company has plans to continue working on adding more models to be able to automate more brands, according to Hurd.

“That will be happening soon,” he said, adding they also have plans to help automate a producer’s tillage applications.

“We will begin beta testing that as early as 2019 and so there will be a limited release after that, but we don’t have an exact timeline,” Hurd said.

“What we really want to be is extremely in touch with our customers,” said Barglof. “Everything that we do is based on what the customer wants us to do. So that makes for some challenges, and long-range planning is hard, but as the market demands something new, that’s where we’re going to pivot to.”

Smart Ag

Smart Ag Technology Company has a team made up of seven full-time people.

“Along the way, we have built a highly-talented, very capable engineering team,” Hurd said. “They all have different areas they are specialized in.”

Barglof leads that team with 15 years of experience leading engineering teams in the ag sector.

“Between Mark and I, we have quite a bit of experience doing this type of stuff,” Hurd said. “Then you add in all of the engineering expertise we have on the team now. We’re not big, but we can do very important small things very effectively.”

Hurd said he grew up working on farm, while Barglof said he actively farms.

Smart Ag Technology Company is the second agricultural company for Hurd. He previously developed Agriculture Concepts.

“I invented a planter product and brought it to the market,” he said.