Machine Autonomy: Lessons Learned From When Auto-Steer Was New

Tim Norris can remember standing at the Ohio Farm Science Review in 1998, and one farmer friend in particular was laughing off the new concept of auto-steer. 

“Three years later, he had it on three tractors with RTK,” Norris says. 

Norris was an independent precision ag consultant for more than 25 years, and now he’s part of the team at SmartAg helping bring autonomy in agriculture to the market. 

“When I first saw auto-steer I knew it wouldn’t be long before we had an autonomous tractor,” he says. “But it’s not as simple as people think because the implement has to be autonomous as well.” 

While SmartAg first demonstrated its concept of AutoCart on a tractor and grain cart combination, the team says it knows there are thousands of combinations that are possible as an aftermarket system provider. 

“Labor is one of the biggest challenges in farming,” he says. “And it’s not about getting rid of anyone, but it is about just getting more done in a day. Maybe that means being able to run a grain cart because you don’t need an extra operator, or maybe it means reallocating that operator to another job such as applying fall fertilizer or planting cover crops.” 

Norris and the team at SmartAg say the time is now for farmers to explore how autonomy could fit onto their farm. Paul Bruns, SmartAg’s western business director, says the concept has been well received. 
“Compared with when auto-steer was introduced, farmers are much more receptive to autonomy,” he says. “They seem to think that it’s not a matter of if but when.” 

The agtech startup says they “are very targeted in who they are testing with,” which includes running in the current wheat harvest and upcoming fall harvest seasons.