And they shoved that thing into OmniDrive

Raven’s OmniDrive is a real-life autonomous system for tractors and combines.  It’s programmed to automatically pick up the combine at optimal points in the field and shuttle the load to the road.  All this without a driver.  |  Raven photo

After decades of speculation, the first truly autonomous grain cart tractor is here and put to a farmers’ test

The first Canadian OmniDrive field demo took place Sept. 8 when a group of about 50 farmers got together at Haggerty Creek Agricultural Services, the Raven dealer near Bothwell, Ont.

Haggerty Creek co-owner Chuck Baresich admitted that his initial grain cart encounters while driving the combine were weird.

“The first thing I learned was that it took quite a few runs to get over the fact that a tractor with no driver is coming up alongside at your combine speed. It’s a genuine shock factor seeing this tractor next to you, keeping up. It freaks you out. It’s un-nerving. You look in the rear-view mirror and you see this tractor coming toward you,” said Baresich in a phone interview.

He said that once he saw that the tractor does exactly what it’s told to do, he calmed down. Baresich said the on-line training course prepared his group for the real thing. A simple tablet in the combine sends the tractor to the staging area.

“In the combine, you can see exactly where the tractor and grain buggy are located. You can see where you are, and you can see the path the tractor is going to take to reach you.”

The combine and tractor both have RTK GPS. As they synch, they use a 900-megahertz radio to communicate as they get closer. At the end of each pass, the combine turns and the cart follows like a dog on a leash.

“As I was testing with the buggy beside, I’d slow the combine down, then speed it up, over and over, and it matched the changes exactly. When the buggy is full, you hit the unload button and the tractor pulls the cart over to the waiting semi. Normally, the combine operator yells at the tractor driver, but now there’s nobody to yell at. OmniDrive gives the combine driver the silent treatment.

“We also did some very rigid testing of the perception system. The cameras prevent the OmniDrive machine from moving if there’s anything in the path. There were a couple times, I accidentally turned the combine into the path of the OmniDrive tractor. The tractor stops and waits for me to move out of the way. A pretty smart big bugger.”

To program for different header widths and auger lengths, the operator positions the cart exactly where he wants it while running. On the tablet, you mark a single button called “synch point” and the tractor will come to that point until you change the instructions. The system handles the rest.

A 1,600 bushel grain cart, for example, should be filled starting at the front of the cart. The tractor will bring the buggy to the point where the front of the cart is under the auger. There’s a nudge button on the tablet, so the operator tells the tractor to gradually nudge ahead so the cart fills evenly.

In any autonomous vehicle, safety is all about perception. The system must perceive every factor in the surrounding area. The Raven system employs five cameras plus radar. It’s sensitive enough to stop if the combine driver starts getting too close. | Haggerty Creek Ag Services photo

Even though he’s been a Raven dealer for some time, Baresich said he’s still amazed at the new tools farmers have to make them more efficient. He said innovations like OmniDrive would not be possible without drive by wire. This technology allows aftermarket, or even OEM, to disrupt the original signals for steering, throttle, brakes, transmission and other functions. The introduced signals from devices like OmniDrive give the machine a new mandate, which more directly serves the requirements of the operator. That’s why the latest systems don’t work on older implements.

On the other side of the coin, the problems farmers have experienced with crippling electronics in the past decade has blown away their confidence in modern digital farm equipment. The frustration has driven many farmers to seek out older, simpler machines on the used market. 

“I’m afraid farmers’ frustration may prevent this latest generation of technology from being adopted. Manufacturers need to understand this. I know Raven has been cognizant of this issue. Originally, they were going to release OmniDrive last year, but they felt they needed one more year of testing. They didn’t want to release a product that wasn’t ready.

“If farmers experience the same level of frustration with autonomous machines they’ve experienced with electronics in general, then adaptation of autonomous machinery is a long way off.” 

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