Processes and equipment which take advantage of the evolving technological landscape are now being applied to the agricultural industry. An Iowa-based company, Smart Ag, has been operating since 2016, working to produce equipment which streamlines farming operations while simultaneously providing solutions to agricultural labor shortages. The company recently held a demonstration of their latest innovation, the AutoCart system, with media in attendance.
The tech firm’s AutoCart system allows existing farming equipment to be retrofitted with software that handles the duties formerly required by a human operator. The AutoCart system utilizes navigation technology which has been adapted from the aerospace industry. The combine operator sets a destination, then a tractor fitted with the AutoCart software charts its own efficient path to that destination. The grain cart follows only the path that the combine has already navigated, ensuring that it stays within the harvested area. The automated grain cart is programmed to work alongside and react in accordance with the combine, meaning that only one operator is needed to man two machines.
Mark Barglof, the Chief Technology Officer for Smart Ag, also says that the AutoCart system is programmed to avoid hazards. “We also have systems in place that can detect objects,” Barglof said. “The vehicle can detect corn, it can detect humans, it can detect vehicles. We've programmed that so it can make a safe stop before it ever hits anything.”
Proponents of AutoCart and similar software say that it is not a replacement for human agricultural labor, but a necessary response to labor shortages that have caused many farms to further automate processes with large, complicated machinery. Systems such as AutoCart represent a middle ground between human-run agricultural operations and virtually fully-automated mega-farms.
An IDTechEx report published in March 2017 predicts that, with decreased regulation, these unmanned autonomous tractors will become an industry norm. The report estimates that 300,000 tractors fitted with autosteer or tractor guidance technology of the sort Smart Ag employs were sold in 2016, with that number expected to broach 660,000 by 2027.
“Labor scarcity is a real issue, and qualified labor scarcity is a really big deal,” farmer Kyle Mehmen said. “We see this as something that can help with that significantly.”