Dan Elliott says farm labor shortages haven’t hit too hard around Cameron in western Illinois yet, but farmers can always use an extra helping hand even if the “help” technically doesn’t have any hands.

Elliott, whose family farming operation grows corn and soybeans and is in the seed business in Cameron, is one of three farmers in the area who are participating in testing the new Kinze Manufacturing Autonomy project.

The project is using current precision farming and advanced robotics from a company involved in mining and the defense industry to operate a tractor pulling a grain cart without a human being inside the tractor cab. The autonomous tractor is actually controlled by the operator in the combine cab.

“We are really excited about it,” he said in an interview following a demonstration of the technology on his family’s farm.

“We think it brings a lot to the table in terms of new technology.”

Like any new technology, the benefits of the technology must be weighed against the cost, he noted. But Elliott believes that over time “the benefits of this new system could really add up and make a difference.”

Labor shortages have not impacted the Cameron area as much as some parts of the country. “We’ve been fortunate to have some really good people working for us,” said Elliott. “But anytime you can free someone up to go do something else, that’s a plus.”

“So far for me the system has worked great,” says Kent Armstrong, another corn and soybean farmer who farms in the Cameron area. “Aside from a few glitches when we started, which they were right on top of, it has been running wonderfully.”

Montgomery says he has been surprised at how simple the operation of the system is. “It’s very easy to learn the controls and operate them. We haven’t spilled a drop of corn other than some that was due to operator error on my part. The cart has been working well.”

Demonstrated remote controls

During the demonstration at the Elliott farm, farm employees demonstrated how the cart can be controlled remotely through four primary modes of operation:

Those are:

• Follow: The autonomous grain cart system follows the combine through the field at a safe distance.

• Unload: When the combine operator is ready to unload the grain into the cart, he presses the “Unload” button on a tablet in the cab. The autonomous grain cart system then speeds up and pulls alongside the combine, matching its speed to the combine’s and positioning the cart under the combine unload auger. The combine operator can then start filling the cart.

• Park: After unloading, the combine operator can instruct the autonomous grain cart system to return to the edge of the field. From there, the cart can be unloaded into a semi-trailer for the grain to be hauled away from the field.

• Idle: When instructed, the system will come to a controlled stop at its current location and wait for further instruction.

“This system has been a long time in the making and we are excited to share it with the farming community,” said Susanne Kinzenbaw Veatch, Kinze vice-president and chief marketing officer. “As farmers ourselves, we know how crucial it is to be productive during the short harvest season. With this solution, we can help farmers make the most of their harvest. ”

Kinze began working on the system in 2009 in cooperation with Jaybridge Robotics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company. They tested it on the Kinzenbaw family farm near Williamsburg, Iowa, and then unveiled it during a dealer meeting last summer.

The project was the idea of Jon Kinzenbaw, the founder of Kinze. “About 10 years ago, my father was talking and he said ‘I think someday we perhaps will see little drones moving across the field and taking care of some of these operations.’”

“We just started this three years ago, and we’re really excited about how far we’ve been able to come with it,” said Veatch, adding that taking it to a group of farmers who were interested in advanced technology systems was the logical next step.

“We have really been impressed with how quickly the farmers have learned how to use the system,” said Rhett Schildroth, product manager for Kinze Manufacturing. “Other than about an hour of showing them how the system worked, we haven’t had extensive training on this new technology.”

While the tractor and grain cart can be moved into position to accept grain from the combine, the grain cart will be unloaded by a human being. Kinze decided that, for now, it makes more sense to use manual unloading into a grain truck.

“The semi driver is there any way to drive the truck away so he can operate the tractor and make sure the grain is distributed,” says Veatch. “This is something we may look at automating in the future, but for now this works.”

As farm communities shrink and farmers face increasing challenges finding skilled labor during the harvest season, Kinze Autonomy aims to help them work as efficiently as possible, Schildroth says. The autonomous grain cart system allows farmers to keep their combine running during the brief harvest window without needing an extra person in the field to run the tractor and cart.

Even better, the grain cart system never gets tired, and will operate as precisely at the end of the day as the beginning. For farmers who need to burn the midnight oil to get their harvest in, the autonomous grain cart is an able partner.