Everyone has seen the autonomous, cabless Magnum. The tractor stole the show at various trade fairs and the clips of it went viral. Now, it stands inoperational in the museum in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. Is that the end of the exercise? No, just the beginning: CNH Industrial is working hard on the underlying technology.
The cabless Case IH Magnum inspires much discussion and endless debate. One thing we can all agree on, though, is that it was a marketing dream. Online clips went viral and the scarlet tractor was the major attraction at numerous agricultural trade fairs. The entire debate concerning autonomous machinery was reinvigorated.
However, everybody now knows this ‘tractor of the future’ stands in-operational at the Racine Experience Center at the Magnum and T8 plant. Only 1 was ever built and it is no longer being tested.
Is that the end of the exercise? No, certainly not, Brad Lukac assures us. He used to be responsible for this ACV (Autonomous Concept Vehicle), and is now Global Product Manager for Magnum tractors. The AVC is exhibited mainly at shows.
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The ACV was built in no time: “In early 2016, our CEO told us, “next spring, we’ll be sowing autonomously”. And so we did,” states Brad Lukac. The ACV sowed around 45 hectares of soya beans autonomously.
The absence of a cab on the ACV serves mainly to attract attention to its autonomous operation and to inspire debate about what agricultural machinery will look like in the future. It was a master-stroke from a marketing point of view.
It’s completely impractical for us to test an autonomous tractor without a cab
But those at Case IH know that in practice, a cab will appear on it anyway. After all, if a neighbour’s tractor gets stuck, you simply want to be able to pull it out. And it needs to be easy to just move the tractor whenever. “In this case, it’s completely impractical for us to test an autonomous tractor without a cab,” laughs Mr Lukac.
Mr Lukac believes the cab has to stay in any case. “Many farmers consider riding their tractor to actually be the most enjoyable part of their work, so you don’t want to remove it completely. Farmers enjoy working with the tractor, but they also want to be able to watch the football match in the evenings,” he explains. “Even though the Magnum can already drive autonomously, many farmers will also use the cab as an office, allowing them to take the wheel now and then to carry out certain tasks.”
One core development team at CNH Industrial is working on autonomous vehicles. The team has defined its own 5 levels of autonomy. Level 1 is already being used; it means that the tractor uses GPS lines and turns automatically on the headland. The tractor has a driver, in this case.
Level 2 is less well-known, though: it enables different vehicles to communicate and transmit data, such as a combine harvester and chaser bin. Level 3 is known as Operator Assisted Autonomy, which means that 1 or more tractor(s) operate autonomously but there is still a driver in the cab. This primarily serves as a partial solution to the issue of a shortage of good drivers.
At level 4, 2 or more tractors drive fully autonomously, but there is someone on-site to oversee everything. This means you could control a tractor with a chaser bin from a combine, for example. Finally, level 5, which is what CNH regards as fully autonomous working, is when the machine performs the work entirely by itself and the manager just stays in the office. This is what was illustrated by the cabless ACV.
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CNH Industrial currently operates 2 plants in which autonomous vehicles are being tested. At least, those are the ones it has announced publicly. There are supposedly more test tractors in operation in the background, and one of these is at Bolthouse Farms, one of the largest carrot growers in North America.
The men there have 2 Quadtracs, which are being used to test out the ACV technology. This crop farmer uses a three-shank subsoiler to turn over a large area of land down to 1 metre deep to enable carrots to grow straight down. It is repetitive work done at low speed. The tractor operates at level 3, and sometimes, when the conditions are right, the driver steps out and it continues working at level 4. Two Quadtracs then operate entirely autonomously, though someone is on hand to supervise.
Autonomous New Holland T4 narrow tractors are running at another test farm: Gallo, a large wine grower in Tulare, California. In this case too, there is always someone present or the driver is controlling 1 of the 2 tractors.
According to the CNH development team, the first autonomous tractors ready for use in the practical setting will be operating in between fruit trees and in vineyards. It is also in these sectors that the group is seeing the greatest market demand, and for this reason, the development team is focusing on autonomous narrow tractors.
All the lessons learned at the test farms will be applied by the CNH development team to the large tractors, as they hope to make the technology available for the entire range of tractors.
In many parts of the world, they are struggling to find drivers
CNH Industrial is not yet able to say when the tractors will be ready for practical use. “As soon as possible,” answers Mr Lukac. “There is some urgency. In many parts of the world, they are struggling to find drivers. Take a simple example: my parents run a crop farm. We have a chaser bin that rides alongside the combine and empties into freight trucks on the roadside. That way of working is very common here. But because there are so few drivers available, that chaser bin is often nothing more than a dumping site in the corner of the plot. That situation is happening more and more.”
“Believe me, the need is great. I have met crop farmers who drive to a bar in the morning before harvest time and take unemployed bar customers back with them just to drive the tractor. That’s the reality. There is a shortage of trained drivers. And automation will make it possible to still get the work done with less-well-trained drivers or even no drivers at all.”