Wisconsin farmers get first look at Raven driverless tractor system in action

Dan Hansen
The driverless tractor is programmed to match the speed of the combine and maintain the correct distance from the combine to make sure the corn is efficiently unloaded into the grain cart.

AMHERST, Wis. – Combines moving through large fields harvesting corn and soybeans are common sights throughout much of Wisconsin each fall. 

The scene also usually includes a second person driving a tractor that’s pulling a grain cart alongside the combine to facilitate transporting the harvested crop more efficiently, helping maximize every minute farmers spend in the field.

Harvesting would become even more efficient, and labor resources better reallocated, if the combine operator could also control an autonomous tractor and grain cart. 

This might sound like wishful thinking, but it’s not. More than 250 farmers from throughout central Wisconsin recently saw this cutting-edge technology in action during two premiere in-field demonstrations, presented by Swiderski Equipment, New Holland and Raven at Biadasz Farms near Amherst and J&L Burkhardt Farms south of Thorp.

Final testing, validation

Ben Sheldon with New Holland says the technology has been seen previously at major farm shows in Iowa and Nebraska. 

“It’s still in the beta stage, which is one of the final stages of validation,” he said. “Right now the focus is on training our dealers, so we haven’t released a time when this will actually come to market, and that’s going to be predicated on when our dealers can adequately support it. This technology requires a new level of investment and commitment to the program so we want to make sure our dealers are adequately staffed to take it on.”

John Cooper, Precision Farming division sales manager at Swiderski Equipment, said his team members are fully committed to this new autonomous technology which he expects farmers to be using in two to three years. 

“We’re ready to move forward with it because the kind of technology you’re seeing here today is the future of agriculture,” he said. “Technology with this autonomous system is key to achieving the production efficiency we’ll need to feed more people with fewer farmers available to produce that food.”

At the heart of the new technology is the Raven OMNiDRIVE driverless tractor and grain cart harvesting solution, which features equipment in the combine and even more in the tractor that enables the combine operator to interface with the driverless tractor, signaling it to move beside the combine, maintain the proper position for unloading the grain, then signal the tractor to move to the grain truck where the truck driver can unload the cart.

For various size farms

One of the major advantages of this autonomous system, and technology in general, is reducing labor costs, and Sheldon believes it will be cost effective for a variety of operations. 

“The initial impression from some in the industry was that it would be only for large, consolidated commercial operations,” he said. “But there’s a wonderful opportunity here also for the owner-operator because the technology is scalable, and will be suitable for the farmer who’s going to be in the cab of a combine as well as running his business; it’s going to be priced at a point where value can be generated for him as well as for the largest farms.”

Bob and Diane Biadasz, who hosted the first in-field demonstration of the Raven OMNiDRIVE driverless tractor system, recognize the value of this new technology in improving harvesting efficiency.

Among those looking toward new technology are Bob and Diane Biadasz, who hosted the first Wisconsin field day. “The third generation to operate his family’s farm, Bob crops about 1,250 acres, including 1,100 acres of corn, with 860 acres irrigated. 

He also does custom harvesting of hay and corn silage with a New Holland chopper. “I have two full-time employees and during the harvest season we hire 3 or 4 additional employees, mostly retired people, to drive trucks,” he said.

Biadasz noted that he had purchased a new combine and tractor during the past couple of years, and said that New Holland reached out to him when they were looking for a field to demonstrate the new autonomous technology.

“With the way things are changing, especially in the labor market, it pays to look at options that offer new technology,” he said. “It’s interesting how with this technology you can basically eliminate a tractor driver with the grain cart.”

He also believes the technology will become more efficient as the equipment gets larger. “With the bigger grain carts we have now the tractor driver has difficulty seeing, but because I’m in the combine cab, I can oversee filling of the cart better,” he said.

In a future issue, Wisconsin State Farmer will provide a more in-depth report on the Raven OMNiDRIVE autonomous tractor system, and take you inside the cab of the combine to explain how the operator controls the driverless tractor.