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Cognitive Agro Pilot provides autonomous combine navigation

Recently, major machinery brands have introduced artificial intelligence (AI) features into their combines’ threshing systems allowing them to automatically self-adjust, which minimizes losses and improves grain quality without operator input.

At a glance: Cognitive Agro Pilot’s system not only allows a combine to steer itself but also to understand and react to its surroundings. Instead of relying on a satellite signal, the system uses a camera to read the terrain ahead and its AI programming decides how to respond to what it sees. The system should be available in Canada this year.

This year, a Russia-based company has taken that AI concept and applied it to a combine’s navigation system. In other words, it’s taking a major step toward autonomous operation by letting the combine not only steer itself but actually understand and react to its surroundings.

No satellite signal needed
And make no mistake, this isn’t just another version of the GPS guidance that nearly all machines are currently capable of. Cognitive Agro Pilot, an autonomous driving technology joint venture of Sberbank and Cognitive Technologies group of Russia, comes at the navigation task from an entirely different direction: it doesn’t rely on any satellite signal. Instead, it uses a camera to read the terrain ahead and its AI programming decides how to respond to what it sees.

Cognitive Agro Pilot allows the combine to “see and understand” what’s lying ahead in its path, making it truly self-reliant. By not relying on GPS, there’s no worry about stoppages or delays when a satellite signal is lost.

“With the use of the system, the combine understands and performs the given functionality by itself,” explained Olga Uskova, the company’s CEO, in an email to Grainews. “Depending on the type of the machine and the class of tasks, the driver may be in the cab or may not.”

Operators still required
She points out that because of the complexities of maintaining the correct threshing parameters, an operator may still be needed in the cab to monitor those systems, assuming the machine doesn’t have the kind of cutting-edge AI self-adjustment capabilities that are now appearing on the market in some models. And all of the company’s promotional material includes showing an in-cab operator.

“So far, combines still need operators,” she added. “However, Cognitive Agro Pilot enables operators to focus more on managing and controlling other harvesting parameters, like the angle of the header, setting up the threshing process, and cleaning the grain. The crop edge capture when controlling a harvester with the Cognitive Pilot AI system is stable at no more than 20 centimetres (of overlap).”

Field tested
The company claims so far it has equipped about 350 combines with its system across 30 regions in Russia, and it’s also testing it with partners in the United States, China, Brazil and Argentina.

In 2020, combines equipped with the Cognitive Agro Pilot system harvested 160,000 hectares (just over 395,000 acres) in a variety of crops that included barley, oats, wheat and soybeans, among others. In all, the machines logged more than 230,000 operating hours, making this a pretty large-scale, first season of commercial use.

“Cognitive Agro Pilot has been actively sold since February 2020,” said Uskova. “But this year, primarily due to restrictions related to COVID-19, we sold the system in the Russian market. In 2021, we will begin active international sales through our dealer network, which we are currently developing. In 2021, our product will be available in Canada as well.”

How it works
The Cognitive Agro Pilot system uses data input from just one video camera and “by using a deep learning neural network fine-tuned for agronomic purposes, understands the types and positions of objects facing the machinery, builds movement trajectories, and sends commands to perform maneuvers,” explains the company.

Because the system detects obstacles and humans in the path of the header and maneuvers the combine to avoid them, it can prevent accidents that might be caused by fatigued operators not reacting to unexpected hazards in time during long harvesting days.

GPS guidance can’t provide that kind of backup safety margin. That “understanding” of its surroundings also allows a combine to work safely as part of a group of machines in the same field. And it keeps the header close to the crop edge even in lodged crops.

System interface is done through a smartphone or rugged-use tablet. And the company claims the system can be adapted to tractors or other machines as well.

“Now, the system works on over 20 types of different combines,” said Uskova. “The system works with harvesters of any brand. The requirements for the equipment are extremely low. If a farmer has some non-standard brand or machine, then our engineers get in touch for additional customization. But the minimum requirement is the presence of a CAN-BUS.”

Canada important market
As the company looks ahead toward global distribution, its eyes are firmly set on Canada.

“Canada is one of the most important markets for us,” she said. “In terms of climate and crops, Canada is very similar to Russia, so we are confident about the high-quality and efficient operation of our system in the fields of Canadian farmers. Estimated price will be about US$10,000.”

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