Combine pulls in

A combine pulls into a shed at Bottom Line Solutions in Morton, Ill., as farmers discuss their harvest preparation plans.

MORTON, Ill. — Jake Aupperle, a Pontiac, Ill., crop farmer, says the new driverless tractors are “exciting technology,” but he doesn’t expect to be seeing one on his fields — at least for another few years.

Aupperle said he can see that some of the early adopters are ready to go. On the other hand, he and his father like to see things work, and they measure the dollars and cents before they buy new technology on

their farm.

“We’re not on the cutting edge,” he said.

While they won’t be the first, neither will they be the last. Aupperle sees the big advantage is that such technology can help with labor.

“It is getting harder and harder to find help — competent help,” he said.

Having such automation can free up a driver for other tasks.

Aupperle was among about 100 farmers attending a field day at Bottom Line Solutions in Morton, Ill., in hopes of seeing a driverless tractor in action.

The event was hosted by the first Illinois dealer for Smart Ag’s new AutoCart, a cloud-based platform that fully automates a grain cart tractor. The software application was developed by the company led by Colin Hurd, based in Ames, Iowa.

Some farmers have seen demonstrations of driverless tractors, including the Case IH model, at farm shows, said Scott Burroughs, owner of Bottom Line Solutions.

“When you see a tractor without a driver, it all clicks,” he said.

The new Smart Ag product isn’t a specific tractor, but software used in a tractor. At first Smart Ag started with a John Deere 8 Series model, but it will be available for other companies and models soon, Burroughs said.

At the event in central Illinois, the demonstration didn’t take place on the drizzly day as planned. But via live video, farmers met Smart Ag’s chief marketing officer, Justin Heath, and chief technology manager, Mark Barglof, who showed simulations of the product and answered farmers’ questions.

Burroughs said the farmers will be invited back to see the tractor in action pulling grain carts this fall during harvest.

“We laughed at this thing at first,” said Nick O’Neall, a Cooksville, Ill., corn and soybean farmer, but he believes the driverless technology will be common on farms in a couple of years.

“I’m waiting. We hesitated with guidance systems at first too,” he said, noting how essential that is to their operation now.

Dannie Huisenga, who owns family farmland in Iowa, lives in Peoria, Ill., and is retired from Caterpillar. He said the equipment isn’t too surprising to him because he’s seen 400-ton Caterpillar mining equipment operate autonomously for years in areas that are not comfortable for humans.

“I think in two to five years from now it will also be pretty common to see tractors out there planting and chiseling without a driver,” he said.

His friend, Mike Powers, also a retiree from Caterpillar, is also accustomed to the industrial use of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence to train the equipment. Powers said he understands the need for such equipment because of labor issues in agriculture.

It is difficult to find employees, especially part time. In Iowa, the unemployment rate is 3 percent, Heath said. Often the owner is doing the most complicated work, running the highly specialized equipment himself, instead of being able to take a step back and manage the operation, Heath said.

Smart Ag’s Barglof, who farms 1,700 acres in north central Iowa with his father-in-law, said he understands the need for labor-saving equipment. Because many incoming farmers also have off-farm jobs, it puts more stress on the labor to get the work done.

“In the Midwest, we need someone or something to help us out, but not full-time,” he said.

Questions farmers asked centered around emergency options, safety in general, how it would affect their insurance, and how the equipment is affected by different terrain and weather conditions.

Several of those attending said they look forward to seeing the driverless tractor pulling grain carts this fall, but they don’t expect it to be doing so on their own farms for a couple more years.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.