In 2011 Kinze, a company best known for building planters and grain carts, surprised many industry observers by announcing it had taken a plunge into the high-tech world of robotics with its Autonomous Tractor Project. It partnered with Jaybridge Robotics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop an automated system to control tractors that pull grain carts through a field, making the driver redundant.
Kinze also announced it was developing the same autonomous system to work in tractors pulling planters in row-crop fields. The grain cart project, however, has been the one the company seems to be focusing on the most. In its most recent announcement, Kinze updated the industry on its current stage of development.
During the 2013 growing season, systems had been leased to three U.S. farmers who were the first to use them without direct supervision from the company’s engineers. These farmers were part of what was actually an initial real-world evaluation of the system and an early prelude to full commercial release.
“…This year Kinze representatives were not in the field overseeing operation of the system, which allowed the farmers to use the technology independently,” reads the company’s press release.
Apparently, the farmers who used it were suitably impressed.
“Because the technology was brand new last year, we took every precaution to make sure it ran properly,” said Rhett Schildroth, senior product manager at Kinze. “We made several minor improvements, and this year the farmers ran the technology by themselves. We’re now getting very positive feedback. The system just works. The farmers keep asking when they can buy it.”
Although the company has still not yet given any firm date for a full commercial release of the system, it says the 2013 limited release provided an opportunity for the farmers who participated to test the four recent improvements.
The range of wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communications the system is capable of was widened. Kinze also increased the range of diagnostic information available to the operator. The speed of vehicle route planning was improved, and a “go to here” feature was added, allowing the tractor and cart to be sent to a strategic location in the field to await further instructions.
“The “go to here” featurereally opens up the field,” said Kent Armstrong, a farmer from Cameron, Illinois, who was one of those leasing the system last year. “After the corn is unloaded into the semi, I instruct the tractor to drive to the best place in the field to wait until I’m ready. It helps the tractor get to the combine for unloading in the most efficient way possible and opens up the field for combining.”
For 2014 Kinze plans to expand the number of autonomous systems working in fields by leasing the system to a larger group of farmers in Illinois and Iowa. So far, however, they haven’t provided any more details.