When Kinze Manufacturing officials began rolling the video for the “big announcement” at their annual Dealer Day event Friday (June 29), the initial reaction among many of the 270 dealers may have been a big yawn.

After all, how many times have dealers seen a tractor pull one of Kinze’s grain carts up to the side of a combine so the cart could begin taking on grain? Then a slow rumble began to move through the assembled dealers and media representatives: “There’s no one driving the tractor.”

At least two other companies are reportedly working on driver-less operating systems for agricultural applications, but Kinze Manufacturing Inc., the Williamsburg, Iowa-based company that’s been building grain carts, plows, planters and other equipment for 40 years, may have beaten them to the punch with the announcement.

“We’re excited to introduce the first truly autonomous row crop solution in the world on this scale,” said Suzanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, vice-president and chief marketing officer at Kinze. “This technology could be used to do a variety of tasks, including planting, nourishing, maintaining and harvesting crops.”

As shown in a field demonstration at the Dealer Day, Kinze and its partners have developed an autonomous system that allows the combine operator to give voice commands to have the tractor and cart move parallel with the combine, take on grain and return to a fixed location. At the latter, the tractor can be instructed to move to the side of a grain truck and unload the grain.

As the rural labor shortage becomes more critical, systems like the Kinze Autonomy Project can reduce the need for skilled operators by taking the human element out of the tractor cab.