Apache Sprayers Featured on Crain’s

This article originally appeared on Crains.com.

Agricultural applications fuel Indiana’s push for autonomous car technology

Self-driving vehicle technology, like Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot feature, is rolling out like science fiction in suburbia.

But down on the farm, such technology is as dated as a Blackberry.

For years, farmers ordering tractors and other rolling farm conveyances have been able to check the box for auto-steering and auto-sensing options. Those technologies guide tractors, combines and sprayer vehicles using the same global positioning signals that Google uses in its bubble-shaped autonomous car prototypes.

Of course, farms have an advantage in that they’re typically private land – not city streets where mistakes could be costly. As such, they’ve been the perfect proving ground for the technology.

“We’ve actually offered auto-steering for 10 years or so,” said Kevin Covey, general manager of product support at Mooresville, Ind.-based ET Works, which calls itself the largest maker of mechanical drive sprayers in the world.

Larger versions of ET Works’ Apache-brand sprayer vehicles have a chassis resembling that of a monster truck, only with fancy cabs and long sprayer booms. Some weigh 20,300 pounds and sell for more than $300,000. With Cummins engines and ZF transmissions, these are brutes.

Touted for productivity

ET Works may now be the only Indiana-based manufacturer of semi-autonomous vehicles. Indianapolis-based Precise Path Robotics, a self-driving lawn mower company co-founded by serial entrepreneur Scott Jones, was purchased in 2015 by Cleveland-based MTD Products, parent of the Cub Cadet line.

In the case of ET Works, it doesn’t make the brains of the auto-steering devices that can steer the machines through rows without creating crop carnage. ET Works sources GPS-guided auto-steering computers from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trimble Inc. The technology connects to steering shafts via electrical-hydraulic coupling.

Some farmers shell out $9,000 for the auto-steering option on the Apache vehicles to reduce the fatigue of driving precisely through fields for hours on end. They also buy it because precise auto-steering can reduce the odds of wasting chemical by overlapping other rows.

The technology has its limits, however. The operator must first drive the boundary line of the field so the computer can learn the line. It then steers by itself, but only up until the end of a row, where the driver takes over and lines it up for the next pass.

Current models don’t have auto-sensing technology that reacts to rocks or holes in the field.

“You have to steer around those yourself,” Covey said of the current offering.


Continue reading the full article on Crain’s…


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