Autonomous smart cart no dummy

The autonomous AutoCart got a workout in Mike Friesen’s corn field this fall, hooked up to a new generation Haulmaster cart and driverless tractor — and the system really does work.

That’s the opinion of Friesen, vice-president of Elmer’s Manufacturing in Altona, Man., builder of the Haulmaster grain cart.

Smart Ag in Ames Iowa selected Elmer’s to field-test its new software platform and kit for controlling a tractor without a driver.

The first commercial application for the AutoCart platform automates a grain cart tractor for harvest. After two years of testing, about two dozen systems were installed throughout midwestern states and into Manitoba for the 2018 harvest.

Except for one incident when he forgot to throttle down the tractor and had to sprint a half mile through corn stubble chasing the runaway, everything went smoothly, recalls Friesen.

“I was in and out and all around the rig with our engineers testing things, and sometimes having to run after it, too,” he says with a laugh.

“I had forgotten to turn the throttle off one time, so it was just creeping along, and we were wondering why it wasn’t catching the combine. So I had to do a half mile sprint.

“Seriously, this a great start (in automation). There’s no doubt it can do the job and it’s safe. We didn’t get it going until there was only a week of harvest left, so we didn’t get a full harvest on it. Once we got a few little hardware issues solved on the install, it worked great.”

Friesen says they were working in muddy conditions, which he thought might have impacted the way the software managed the tractor. But it behaved as well as a human-driven tractor. He noted that working in corn, a cart tractor is far busier than in cereals or oilseeds, typically bouncing back and forth between moving targets all the time.

“Once we had it set up, I think it can keep up with any combine, because it’s able to use all the power of the tractor. We had it on a John Deere 8345R.”

Although there are multiple modes of operation, they were working with only one combine, so they parked the cart at a staging point in the middle of the field and had it synchronized with that combine when it was ready to unload. When they got close to unload time, the operator simply hit the sync button and the cart would come over and trot alongside the combine. After three or four dumps, they’d send the cart over to the truck.

“The safety features worked the way they were supposed to. It didn’t run over any people. It didn’t run over any corn. We started a field that we hadn’t mapped out with the combine, so it didn’t recognize the viable paths. There was some standing corn in the way, which the AutoCart would have thought was open ground. When it drove up to the standing corn, it would stop right away.

“There’s a radar and a visual system that you install. When we sent it back to the truck, it would stop as soon as the truck driver was out of the cab. Then it would wait until the driver was in the tractor cab to take over and unload the cart. It had no trouble respecting field boundaries when we did field edges the right ways.”

Friesen says the electronics package they have on the new Haulmaster cart is CAN BUS compatible, but they are not using it yet. He thinks adding AutoCart would make the whole information package more attractive.

“Everything’s all there to do it, but there’s no demand yet.”

List price on the AutoCart system is about US$40,000 according to Colin Hurd, founder and chief executive officer of Smart Ag. He says that once the cart system is on the market and moving, an auto steering tillage tractor will likely be his next project. Farmers are telling Hurd that using the same Smart Ag guidance on the same tractor in two different seasons lets them spread the investment over a broader period.

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