Kinze Mfg. advances autonomous grain harvest project and begins limited leasing of systems through Illinois dealership.

Last year, Kinze Mfg. opened some eyes when the company showcased its autonomous grain harvest project and gave three different farmers the controls at a demonstration event in Monmouth, Ill.

The event left many wondering what the next step in the project would be and although Kinze didn’t sponsor a field exhibition in 2013, it did move forward with a distribution plan for dealers.

“Last year, we were testing the system and this year, we are leasing it to customers,” says Rhett Schildroth, product manager for Kinze. “Instead of having support staff from Kinze there in the field everyday, customers are more or less on their own with the support of their dealer, similar to how they would be with any other piece of equipment they purchased.”

Kinze is leasing the system to each of the three farmers who tested the system during the 2012 harvest and providing engineering and technical support. But the initial point of contact for service and maintenance questions is Painter Farm Equipment, in Monmouth, Ill., which was involved with the project in 2012.

Dealership co-owner Todd Painter says this year, his staff worked with a Kinze service representative to install the systems prior to harvest and his staff is available for any question from customers.

“Customers beyond the three using the system are very interested in this technology and as a dealer, I eventually see these as a good sales opportunity because for customers, they provide a huge labor savings,” Painter says. “They can eliminate the person needed to drive the tractor and the grain cart.”

With no farmer in the cab to communicate with, recording system data will allow dealers to troubleshoot problems and also assist Kinze engineers in recreating in-field scenarios if there is a problem.

“The system is recording all the information on the go and if there’s any hiccup, we can go back within a 24-hour window and look at sensor data,” Schildroth says. “We can view the camera information and not just the harvester, but the tractor and grain cart as well, so we can reconstruct the entire scenario.”

Kinze has been working since 2009 to develop an autonomous grain cart system that allows an unmanned tractor to accompany a combine through the field during harvest. The company partnered with Jaybridge Robotics of Cambridge, Mass., to develop the autonomy software to test the system.

The system is controlled with a tablet in the combine, where the operator can set the path of the grain cart to coincide with that of the combine and maintain position under the auger for unloading. The operator can program the grain cart to follow, unload, park or idle.

This year, Kinze added a “go-to” feature, which allows farmers who want to position the grain cart in a certain part of the field, to touch that area on the virtual map and it will automatically go there and wait for further instructions.

Painter says experienced dealers are probably already well prepared to sell this advanced technology.  

“For most dealers who have been selling guidance equipment and auto-steer, it should be a pretty seamless transition selling these systems,” he says. “For us, a lot of equipment comes factory installed with guidance, but we also do installs on all different brands, so working with these autonomous systems isn’t all that different.”

Kinze plans to continue leasing the systems for several years, according to Schildroth. But the goal is to eventually introduce the product to a larger geographic area and include more dealers in the distribution of the system.

While he declined to disclose the lease price of the system, Schildroth says it will initially be most attractive to high-end, progressive producers.

“What you’ll see is that the price point will be for the innovators for the first few years,” he says. “It will be a number of years before it comes down to a mass market type price.”