Charlie Troxell, precision ag specialist for Precision Agri Service, Inc.

Tomorrow’s autonomy technology in use today

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff

The fall of 2019 was not an ordinary harvest for Charlie Troxell of Clark County. Working with Precision Agri Services, Troxell was aided in completing harvest by Smart Ag’s Autonomous Grain Cart.

“Precision agriculture is constantly changing. Autonomy is just one aspect of precision ag Autonomy is here to stay,” said Bill Lehmkuhl, owner of Precision Agri Service in Minster. “There are two forms of autonomy in use. One form is common, and most farmers do not even realize they are using it. The second, which includes driverless vehicles, is improving and we are in the early stages of adoption.”

Farmers should think of autonomy on three levels.

“The first level that most farmers are already using and don’t even realize includes combines that automatically adjust harvest settings on the go without the operator making any changes,” Lehmkuhl said.

Examples would include header height adjustments or reel speed changing automatically.

Another level would be connecting ground conditions to equipment operations such as hydraulic down force pressure systems on planters.

“Systems such as Delta Force or Sure Force that automatically make setting changes to downforce pressure when planting based on preset parameters are being sought after by more farmers every year. These systems adjust the down pressure to get more uniform seed placement based on changing ground conditions. It is all done on the go, without the operator pushing any buttons,” Lehmkuhl said. “Sprayer systems which allow for automatic sprayer boom height adjustments based on either the top of the crop canopy, or ground level as well as section and even individual nozzle control base on GPS application mapping are also currently being used.’

The third level of autonomy includes driverless vehicles.

“These systems are already here, and are just beginning to be adopted,” Lehmkuhl said. “The vehicles make adjustments based on information received from GPS technology and sensors. They have the ability to be remotely controlled, as well as shut down completely for safety purposes.”

SmartAg’s AutoCart, which was used by Troxell this past harvest, is an example of the third level of autonomy. Troxell ran a Beta version for SmartAg of their AutoCart on his farm. The concept and function used a web browser program on a tablet connected to the Internet along with GPS RTK precision technology on the equipment in the field. Both the combine and tractor pulling the grain cart need to be able to be synced. The combine and tractor share the same field boundaries.

As harvest is completed with each pass, those areas are made available for the tractor and grain cart to be allowed to travel. The combine operator has the ability to take control of the tractor at any time, or make on-the-go adjustments to its operation. The program allows the tractor and grain cart to autonomously move to a staging area in the field, and then when called, maneuver directly to the combine and align until it syncs with the combine for unloading. The AutoCart program can then be sent back to the staging area, or to the unloading area.

Troxell ran a beta version in 2019, but SmartAg hopes to have the system available in the fall of 2020.

“Currently the only tractor the AutoCart system can only operate on is a John Deere 8R series wheeled machine,” Troxell said. “The tractor must be equipped with the Deere GPS and a SmartAg Smart computer. It also must have the IVT transmission. Work is being done to allow AutoCart to function with a CaseIH tractor with an IVT transmission.”

Lehmkuhl envisions this same level of technology being used in other applications in the near future.

“The same concept could apply to running a tillage tool in front of a planter in the spring, or planting cover crops in the fall behind a combine,” Lehmkuhl said. “The basic concepts and platform should work. The sensor technologies could also be used when baling hay to change the density of the bale, or provide machine controls for dozens of other applications.”

Resource management continues to be very important, especially in times of continued low commodity prices.

“While this technology is still in its infancy, the application and ownership by farmers can provide a positive ROI to all sizes of operations. Some farms may work together to implement this technology, but farms that are a smaller size and scale do not need to be left out. In fact, it may be more beneficial for a smaller to middle size operation that finds maintaining a seasonal workforce to be a challenge,” Lehmkuhl said. “This technology can allow managers to re-allocate their resources that may have previously been spent on human capital to technology. It is a way they can remain independent, and potentially do a better job at all aspects if their farming operation.”

SmartAg and several of the systems described above are available from Raven Autonomous.

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