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Robotic Harvesting Technology Tested on Iowa Farm

Ames-based technology firm, Smart Ag, tested their new AutoCart software this fall on a fifth-generation family farm in Iowa. MBS Family Farms is the first to trial this new self-driving tractor technology.

“It looks like the headless horseman when the tractor’s out there without an operator in it,” said Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for Smart Ag. “It takes a little bit to get used to, but once you do get used to it you can see the future is really in front of you.”

With the push of a button, farmer Kyle Mehmen was able to bring an idling John Deere 8345R tractor to life as he watched the machine automatically harvest grain from his fields.

The Smart Ag system is designed to automatically operate agricultural equipment with ease. According to the company, this system is still in an early trial phase. Company officials are planning to provide more information on this new technology by the end of the year.

“Our goal today was to show what this system does in a real environment, on a real farm, under real constraints and pressures,” said Colin Hurd, chief executive officer of Smart Ag.

Hurd, who founded the company in 2016, hopes that his new technology can help tackle the agricultural labor shortage that many farms are experiencing due to complicated modern agricultural machines. Hurd’s AutoCart technology has the ability to produce as much as two skilled employees would on their own.

“For decades we’ve been limited on farms to about 1,000 acres per full-time equivalent (employee),” said Allen Lash, CEO of Family Farms Group in Brighton, Illinois.

“If we’re going to break out of that and drive more efficiency … it’s probably easier to automate than to train unskilled labor.”

Mehmen said he is excited about the new opportunities that automation can provide, but he does not plan on cutting back any of his 20 employees.

“I want to be clear that our excitement around this technology isn’t about replacing any one of those 20,” Mehmen said. “It’s about bringing more on.

“Labor scarcity is a real issue, and qualified labor scarcity is a really big deal,” he added. “We see this as something that can help with that significantly.”

AutoCart uses navigation technology from the aerospace industry, allowing the combine operator to set up an efficient path for the tractor.

“The grain cart is programmed to never go anywhere that the combine hasn’t been,” Hurd said. “It won’t go outside the area that’s been harvested.”

According to Barglof, who is also a farmer, the automated grain cart is synchronized to run beside and react to the combine movement. This means that this technology is safer and better than having an experienced operator behind the tractor wheel. The vehicle can detect corn, humans and other vehicles and it is programmed to make a safe stop before it ever hits anything.

Efforts to incorporate robotic technology into the agricultural industry have been around for over eight years. More products are expected to hit the market.