Autonomous OMNiDRIVE helps farmers increase efficiency while easing labor shortage

Dan Hansen
Raven’s Eric Post detailed the lights, cameras and other equipment that makeup the OMNiDRIVE autonomous system on the New Holland T8.435 tractor.

AMHERST, Wis. – With the number of farms decreasing and global population increasing, farmers will need to increase food production by about 70% within 30 years.

Rising input costs, labor challenges and a focus on sustainability have led farmers to turn to technology to conserve resources and maximize time in the field. Autonomous equipment may prove the ultimate solution to the productivity problems allowing them to reallocate labor resources while covering more acres in a day.

Recently Wisconsin farmers were introduced to the Raven OMNiDRIVE driverless tractor and grain cart harvesting solution during demonstrations at two central Wisconsin farms presented by Swiderski Equipment, New Holland and Raven that we highlighted in last week’s Wisconsin State Farmer.

In this issue we’ll take a closer look at the company, the system and take you inside the combine as the operator controls the driverless tractor and grain cart.

Raven Industries

Ben Sees, the company’s Customer Experience manager, noted that Raven Industries is six years old and headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Raven is now part of CNH Industrial,” he said. “We’re happy with the partnership and it’s been great to work more closely with the Case-IH and New Holland teams.

“We’ve been developing this OmniDrive technology for four years, and we’re within two years of limited commercial release,” Sees related. “We’re going to have 50 to 100 systems out in the market and we’re going to gather information so we can program all nuances into the system to make sure it performs correctly for everything that can happen during harvesting and other applications.”

Although the recent demonstrations focused on corn harvesting, Sees emphasized the technology is expected to transfer to additional applications, with a projected cost in the $55,000 range. “We’re working on utilizing the technology for tillage and haying applications as well. The uses of the technology are almost endless, and that will bring additional value to our farmers,” he said. 

Sees said the goal is to integrate the OmniDrive aftermarket kit with platforms currently available. “We’ve developed all the software and we build all the hardware for the autonomous system,” he stressed. “There’s quite a bit of technology on the tractor, somewhat less technology on the combine. It takes roughly a day to install the system on a tractor and a couple of hours for installation on the combine.”

Post points to the radar on the front of the tractor.

Emphasizing that OmniDrive automatically syncs the tractor to the combine during the crop transfer process. “There’s nobody in the tractor at this point, and once we get the field opened up the combine operator has complete control of that tractor and can set it to a staging point to keep it close to the combine.  He can send it to a truck so it can be unloaded or he can bring the tractor and grain cart to the combine when it’s time for grain to be transferred.”

With OmniDrive there’s no need to stop and wait for a tractor operator to catch up with the combine, according to Sees. “It’s important to keep that combine moving because when the combine stops you’re losing money,” he said.

Equipping the tractor

Raven Industries’ Eric Post explained that a tablet and another computer are inside the combine that enable the operator to stage the tractor and grain cart, bring it to the combine to transfer the grain, and send the tractor and cart to a truck where it can be unloaded all utilizing GPS points throughout the field.

“When the combine operator sends a command, the tractor actually goes through a safety process,” Post said. “On the top we have an LED light that blinks when the tractor is ready to move. We have a horn that blares three different times; after a 2-3 second delay the tractor moves.”

In addition to lights, the tractor has five different cameras. “We have a camera on the back, one on each side and two on the front," Post explained. “The ones on the back, the sides and one facing down in the front are hazard cameras, which are designed to check the surrounding area around the tractor before it moves.”

If someone is standing near the side of the tractor the system will disarm and the tractor will not move. “The forward facing camera that looks out works in conjunction with the radar in the front,” said Post. “That is our object detector while the tractor is running through the field. If someone walks out in front of it, the forward facing cameras and radar system will pick up that person and stop the tractor.”

Once the tractor is moving along side of the combine, it’s easy to see there’s no driver in the farm vehicle.

A built-in buffer zone will slow the tractor at 10 meters and stop at three meters “But typically it will stop further away,” said Post. “If we feel the tractor is unsafe – such as slipping in a wet hole in the field, or if it can’t get to the commanded speed – it will slow down to four miles an hour.”

The actual user interface is very simple to use, with a short learning curve, according to Post. “We make it as easy as possible,” he said. “With the three commands: syncing, staging and unloading, all you’re really doing is designating where you want it to go by clicking a button. What we’re doing in the background is generating a path to that location.”

Unloading the grain cart utilizes just one switch in the tractor. “Typically, the truck driver will hop in, flip a rocker switch and that disengages the system and puts the tractor into its normal mode. Once the grain is unloaded, the switch is flipped back, and the tractor is back into the autonomous mode,” said Polk.

View from the combine

Later in the day, I climbed into the combine cab and sat beside John Cooper, Precision Farming division sales manager at Swiderski Equipment, who stopped the combine momentarily to sync it with the tractor. He hit the sync button on the target screen and the tractor began to move into position beide the combine.

“I’m traveling at 5.3 miles per hour and the tractor will match that speed. The tractor will position itself parallel to the combine at the correct distance to transfer the grain to the cart, but you have to give it enough room in the field to make its turn. I can also bump it ahead, slow it down over move it left or right,” Cooper explained.

By pressing a button he signaled the tractor to stop. “If I want it to go to a truck and unload, or go to the staging area in the field where it started, or a certain staging area in the field where I want to pick it up the next time, it will do that. I just need to tell it where to go on my screen it will go where I send it,” Cooper said.

“You want to keep the tractor in front of you as much as possible so it’s not coming up behind you,” he advised. “If the tractor is always following you, dust can build up in the radiator, you might have to stop and clean it.”

Cooper noted that the combine operator still has to be aware of what’s going on around him, and know where to send the tractor. “The system is only as smart as the directions it receives from the operator,” he said.