It’s clear to see that we are living in a futuristic present. Technologies portrayed in sci-fi films are currently being deployed and our future is looking very bright because of it. In the ag industry, one example of technology aid is the use of unmanned autonomous trucks to increase haul capacity while addressing the labor shortage we face in our region—spearheading this effort is Kratos Defense & Security Solutions which is working with Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative on a pilot deployment.
How does it work?
The autonomous truck uses a series of sensors to follow a manned lead truck, maintaining a particular distance from the lead truck at all times.
That deployment, which is still in its infancy, is the only deployment of autonomous class 8 tractor-trailers for an ag company in North Dakota, putting Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative on the cutting edge of addressing North Dakota’s significant labor shortage.
“This application is all about addressing the impacts of labor shortages,” said Maynord Factor, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions’ VP of business development. ” When you have haul capacity goals and objectives that you have to meet, but you lose a driver to something like COVID, what do you do? You still have to meet your haul capacity, but how do you do that? Now, with the automated trucks, companies have the ability to augment their labor pool.”
Currently, the autonomous Minn-Dak follow truck, which can be operated manually as well, have a spotter sitting in the driver’s seat for test runs. Minn-Dak and Kratos will likely continue doing this through at least the end of this season in order to capture relevant data before moving forward with the fully autonomous follow trucks.
One roadblock facing the rollout of this technology, according to Factor, is that Minnesota law currently only permits autonomous trucks to drive on highways, not county roads—this inhibits ag operations at the moment.
“There are piles [of sugarbeets] on the North Dakota side and there are piles on the Minnesota side,” Factor said. “We really need to get to the piles on the Minnesota side and that’s when it will really make sense for everybody. Then, they can evaluate the whole operation from start to finish—every pile loaded and unloaded and bringing the vehicles back.”
The other step in the approval process includes collecting data and communicating that data with state legislators, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, and the Highway Patrol— this also involves keeping them up to date with the status of the deployment.
Already in ND
Kratos Defense & Security Solutions has already deployed autonomous Truck Mounted Attenuators (TMA) for the North Dakota Department of Transportation in order to curb the more than 12 crash-related fatalities in road work zones that are reported by the United States on average per week. Traditionally, TMAs are humandriven mobile crash barriers that follow behind a highway maintenance vehicle to protect workers and equipment from potential collisions. This puts the drivers of TMAs at risk themselves. The autonomous TMA almost completely mitigates crash-related injuries and fatalities that currently are the result of these work zone crashes that are, unfortunately, inevitable. The autonomous TMA works by precisely following the manned lead truck in front of it, adding a level of protection for those individuals as well. The use of autonomous follow trucks in the ag industry should provide the same benefit.
“Rural communities are historically very overlooked when it comes to technology deployments,” Factor said. “So now, here’s a great opportunity for someone in Wahpeton, ND, to have the chance to work with and see technology that they never thought they would.”
So folks, the future is here and it is exposing us to new technology, increased haul capacity, and increased safety.