Robots on the rise

As farmers become more comfortable with automation, companies forge ahead to evolve 8 concepts.

Whether it’s pulling a field cultivator, a vertical-tillage tool, or a high-speed planter, the tractor is an integral part of getting the work done on D-Dowson Farms. It’s also a seat that has become harder to fill. 

“Finding labor has been a big issue,” says Steve Moffitt, who farms with his father-in-law, Dean Dowson, and brothers-in-law Tim Eike and Scott Mundhenke.

Presented with a solution that would automate one of the tractor’s responsibilities, Moffitt was both intrigued and a bit apprehensive. “Sabanto Ag’s autonomous mobile planting unit is exciting, but I was concerned it was going to eliminate my job,” he says. 

The Illinois farmer is also a realist. “As farmers, we always think we can do it better, cheaper, and faster, but our role is changing. We are starting to wear more of a management hat than a tractor driving hat. This technology allows us to give up things that are out of our efficiency circle.”

“What I’m beginning to tell farmers,” says Scott Shearer, a professor at Ohio State University, “is to focus on four or five things they’re really good at and hire the rest.”

Farming as a service

Through the years, D-Dowson Farms has added myriad technologies, like auto steer and swath control, to gain efficiencies in planting. More recently, the operation swapped out its upgraded implements for John Deere’s ExactEmerge planters.

“We were able to go from five to four planters because they can do so much more in a day,” Moffitt says.

For over 100 years, Deere has focused on the productivity of equipment. While that is still first and foremost, Julian Sanchez, director, emerging technology for the company, says the industry has reached a ceiling on how fast a machine will go through a field or how well an engine is designed to maximize its output for the tractor and implement. 

“The way to keep that runway of opportunity going is through the intelligence on the machine,” Sanchez says. “In the next 10 years, rather than talk about the horsepower on equipment, we’re going to talk about its IQ. Farmers and machinery companies will measure success by how intelligent a vehicle behaves and the contextual decisions it makes in the field without human interference.”

The executives at Sabanto Ag believe developing an autonomous planter is a good place to start. “Planting is hard and finding a skilled operator is even harder,” says Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto. 

In 2019, the farming-as-a-service (FaaS) company planted 160 acres of soybeans for D-Dowson Farms; it nearly doubled those acres this growing season. 

Not only does FaaS provide a ready market for autonomous equipment but it also generates value for farmers because it reduces risk. More importantly, Shearer says it offers an opportunity to pay for performance.

A complete solution

With its recent purchase of Dot Technology Corporation, Raven Industries is taking a different approach. The company is selling, on a very limited basis, the Dot Power Platform along with implements to growers and ag retailers. 

In the near term, the platform (pictured at left) will run in semiautonomous mode. Later this year, Smart Ag perception and path planning technology, which Raven acquired last November, will be tested on the unit. The move will allow Dot to evolve into a fully autonomous solution. 

Going from highly automated to full autonomy is a big leap not just technologically but also behaviorally.

“What tools do we have to give the farmer so he feels confident he can monitor a fully autonomous system from the edge of a field or in a remote setting?” asks Sanchez, adding there is about a 95% readiness level.

It turns out, achieving that last 5% is really difficult. “The mind-set has been let’s go autonomous, and let’s replace,” Sanchez says. “As you take the human out of the cab, you have to very intentionally figure out how to keep the most sophisticated computer we know – the human brain – in the mix.”

“How is that tractor – with no operator – going to know where the wet spot is in a field? How will it know there may be a rut?” questions Jason Orr. “I feel you have to have the operator instinct in the cab.”

The Iowa farmer also says he didn’t become a farmer to sit at a computer all day. “Being on the land – feeling it and smelling it – is therapy for me. It’s going to be tough to get me out of the field.”

With an array of options being developed, it doesn’t have to be either-or.

“Autonomy will be an evolution in iterative development; we’ll see mixed fleets of semi- and fully autonomous machines working together for a long time,” says Wade Robey, executive director, Raven Autonomy. “It’s how we envision the future farm – a farmer works in the field with one implement, or performs a certain task, while fully autonomous systems work in a collaborative, coordinated manner with him to reduce the labor burden and improve the safety, efficiency, and overall economics of the operation.”

8 innovations

Following are eight ways to automate chores such as clearing a field of rocks and maneuvering a grain cart.

Terraclear

BOTTOM LINE: TerraClear provides farmers with the tools to rapidly clear a field of rocks with just one operator.

TerraClear update

As Brent Frei worked alongside his 81-year-old father picking rocks in the summer of 2017, the wheels began to turn in the serial tech entrepreneur’s head.

“Despite owning multiple types of mechanical rock pickers, we were still picking rocks by hand in the summer heat,” Frei recalls.

Combining his technology-driven problem solving with the drudgery of rock picking, the fourth-generation Idaho farm kid is developing a family of three solutions – an aerial-produced Rock Map, a skid steer or tractor-mounted picker, and an autonomous picking robot to modernize this age-old chore.

“Our TerraClear technology makes rock removal easier by flying the field with a drone, which produces a map showing the size and location of each rock,” Frei says. “The map can then be used to travel an optimized route directly to rocks of concern. Without leaving the machine, a single operator can efficiently clear rocks from the field.”

His company is currently prototyping and testing all three concepts. Each picker is tested for picking effectiveness, productivity, robustness, and safety. The map is tested for accuracy, ease of use, and turnaround time.

“The vast majority of our testing involves running the full system end to end in the fields of the Camas Prairie of Idaho,” he says. “Our farmer partners have been particularly helpful when it comes to product feedback, which we view as the most important part of our testing.”

Smaller stand-alone pieces of the solution are also being evaluated at the company’s indoor and outdoor test facilities under controlled conditions to minimize seasonal limitations.

Frei expects to release a version of each on a limited basis over the next 18 months, with the first rollout of mapping and picking as a service within Idaho this year.

“Automation of mundane tasks like rock picking can free farmers to focus on more important tasks,” Frei says. “An effective solution for rock picking will positively change the pace and productivity of their crunch-time farming operations.”

Learn More: terraclear.com​​​​

​​Smartcore

BOTTOM LINE:  Rogo Ag’s robotic soil sampling service provides three times more accurate soil data than traditional soil sampling, so farmers and service providers can increase fertilizer effectiveness by 10%.

rogoimage

Improperly collecting soil samples is the weak link in the soil-testing process and in fertility management, believes Troy Fiechter. 

“Results based on an incorrect soil core can be more financially detrimental than obtaining no soil core at all,” explains the Indiana farmer and Purdue University graduate. “Even with today’s automatic soil samplers, there are still inconsistencies with the actual cores being drawn because there is the potential to leave a portion of the soil behind. They can also be partially plugged without being corrected soon enough.”

By creating SmartCore – a fully autonomous machine equipped with a high-speed auger that hits the desired depth within 1⁄8 of an inch – Fiechter believes he is ensuring the whole core is captured every time for improved accuracy and repeatability. In addition, a cleaning collar eliminates sample-to-sample cross contamination.

Equipped with advanced PPP GPS (equal to RTK) and navigation programming, SmartCore delivers complete repeatability of each soil core with inch-level precision, while sampling fields two times faster than traditional soil sampling methods.

Based on testing done by Beck’s Practical Farm Research, SmartCore drops the error from a minimum of 15% in traditional soil sampling down to 5%. 

“If a farmer is spending $75 per acre on phosphorus, potassium, and lime, this increases profitability by around $13 per acre because he’s reducing inputs in the areas that don’t need it, and increasing in areas that do need it,” Fiechter says.

The fall of 2018 marked SmartCore’s sampling-as-a-service debut. To date, the company has sampled 200,000 acres in fields from Pennsylvania to Kansas. Prices range from $3 to $4 an acre for collection of samples at standard grid sizes (2.5- and 5-acre grids). For collection and analysis, prices range from $7 to $8 an acre. 

Learn More: rogoag.com

Rowbot

BOTTOM LINE:  Rowbot precisely sidedresses nitrogen, which eliminates overfeeding and runoff while maximizing yields and profitability.

rowbot2020

At 2 feet wide and 7 feet long, Rowbot is a self-driving robot slender enough to fit nimbly between corn rows to apply fertilizer in sync with corn needs. Using GPS and LiDAR to navigate, the machine precisely sidedresses nitrogen, eliminating overfeeding and runoff.

Currently, Rowbot can handle four rows at a time, according to Kent Cavender-Bares, Rowbot Systems CEO. It also collects data during operation, which the farmer can then analyze to further improve in-season decisions as well as plan for future seasons. 

The Minneapolis-based company plans to add in-field sensing to improve the accuracy of a model like Adapt-N. It will field test the concept during the 2021 growing season.

The machine can also interseed cover crops into tall corn. “We will also be providing additional cover crop services this fall on limited acres across the Midwest,” he says.

In 2021, the company expects a large commercial deployment of Rowbot as a custom application service. Generally, rates will be $10 to $15 per acre.

Learn More: rowbot.com

See and spray

BOTTOM LINE:  See & Spray technology has the potential to reduce herbicide costs by 90%.

seeandsprayblueriver2020

Blue River Technology has developed See & Spray – a pioneering approach that uses computer vision and machine learning to precisely spray herbicides only where weeds are present.

Rather than rely on spacing or color to identify weeds, See & Spray recognizes every plant and determines the right treatment for each, continually learning as it goes. Robotic nozzles target unwanted plants in real time as the sprayer passes through the field while avoiding the crop or areas without weeds. 

Acquired by John Deere in 2017, the technology is an important capability for the company’s future. 

“From a functional as well as a value standpoint, it is a great building block in helping farmers reduce chemical use, and spot on with where we wanted to invest,” says Julian Sanchez, director, emerging technology, John Deere . “Bringing in a knowledge-rich set of folks in the machine learning space also really upped our capabilities.”

Currently, See & Spray can identify the differences between cotton plants and weeds of many species and sizes. The technology has also been tested in soybeans.

Because Deere wants a broad set of examples in order for the artificial intelligence to learn what a weed looks like and what it doesn’t look like, the technology is currently being tested in the Midwest as well as other parts of the world on additional crops. This rich intelligence, Sanchez says, will accelerate deployment into several markets.

“A system that can be very selective and only hit an area that really needs it can lead to 50% to 60% savings in chemicals alone,” he says. “Once we get to where we can do it postemergence, we will see a 90% savings.”

Deere’s goal is to have its first system commercially available within the next two years. While it hasn’t yet determined which crop it will target initially, the company wants to develop the technology in a way that is most fitting with a grower’s current workflow and practices. 

“Our plan is to launch it on a platform a grower is used to and that he can easily troubleshoot,” Sanchez says.

Learn More: bluerivertechnology.com

Mobile planting unit

BOTTOM LINE:  Sabanto Ag’s mobile planting unit can cover about 500 acres in 24 hours of continuous operation.

mobileplantingunit2020

Rethinking how a crop goes in the ground is at the center of Sabanto Ag’s mobile planting unit.

“Planting is hard, and finding a skilled operator capable of planting is even harder,” says CEO Craig Rupp. 

The farming-as-a-service company has spent two growing seasons testing its system in soybean fields across the Midwest. In its first year, a JCB 4220 Fastrac tractor (235 hp.) was modified using current technologies (e.g., GPS receiver, computer control box, and steering actuators) to autonomously pull an 18-row Harvest International planter with 20-inch rows.

The planter was equipped with Precision Planting’s DeltaForce, vDrive, vSet, and CleanSweep. The start-up partnered with Climate FieldView to collect, store, visualize, and use field data. It also worked with DigiFarm to provide cellular RTK correction services.

“Our goal for 2019 was 10,000 acres, but we fell short of that,” says Rupp, who founded Sabanto with Indiana farmer Kyler Laird. “We’d like to blame it on the unusually wet spring, but software and communications were a challenge. What’s interesting in ag is that while it may look easy on paper, once you try to deploy it in the field, you quickly learn all the unforeseen issues.”

The acres planted matched or exceeded the farmer’s previous yield. “Not only can we plant autonomously, but we can compete in terms of performance with conventional planters,” Rupp says.

For 2020, the company deployed four modified Kubota M5660SU tractors (60 hp.) to guide five-row Harvest International planters. The decision to go with a smaller footprint was based on weight, cost, relative simplicity to retrofit, and ease of transport.

The system can cover about 500 acres in 24 hours of continuous operation, but end rows and headlands are still planted semiautonomously as the process is perfected. The company plans to improve its efficiency by autonomously tendering in the field. At present, units are programmed to return to a predetermined area to replenish supplies.

Rupp says Sabanto’s fee is competitive with average planting rates reported in the 2020 Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey ($20.40 to $23.40 per acre).

Learn More: sabantoag.com

Autocart

BOTTOM LINE:  Smart Ag automates a grain cart tractor with driverless technology to help during harvest.

autocart2020

One of the most hectic times in the growing season, harvest isn’t just about getting the crop out of the field – it’s also about logistics. A position that demands careful attention and experience, the grain cart operator is vital in coordinating this complex operation, but finding a qualified driver has become a challenge.

Founded in 2015 by Colin Hurd, Iowa-based Smart Ag offers a software solution: Automate the process by operating a driverless grain cart from the cab of the combine. AutoCart, along with a tractor automation kit, is a plug-and-play system that lets you set staging and unloading locations in a field, adjust speed, monitor location, and command the grain cart to sync precisely to the speed and direction of the combine. After loading, the tractor and grain cart automatically return to an unloading point.

Acquired by Raven Industries in 2019, Smart Ag adds perception and path planning capabilities to the company’s precision ag operations.

“When we started building our suite of autonomy offerings, we decided not to invest in perception – obstacle detection, obstacle identification, and obstacle avoidance – because we felt there were already a number of players in the field,” says Wade Robey, executive director, Raven Autonomy. “We thought they’d be readily accessible to us.”

Relying on third parties, however, restricted Raven’s ability to drive development as quickly as it wanted. “The Smart Ag team has done a wonderful job of developing its technology,” Robey says. “It was a great starting point for us, and we knew we could build on it to further improve its abilities.”

AutoCart, offered commercially this fall, includes:

  • An automation kit to make the grain cart tractor capable of driverless operation.
  • An on-board safety and perception system, which allows the driverless tractor to detect obstacles in its path and stop if required.
  • A harvester kit, which allows the combine or harvester to connect to and control the tractor.Access to the Raven Autonomy platform with a subscription to the AutoCart user application.

The price before dealer discount is $55,000.

Learn More: ravenprecision.com

A complete solution

BOTTOM LINE:  Dot is a mobile diesel-powered platform that handles a variety of ag implements semiautonomously.

dot2020

About three years ago, Raven Industries decided to partner with companies bringing autonomy to the ag market. With the acquisition of Dot Technology Corporation in 2019, the traditional precision ag company is becoming an equipment manufacturer.

“Instead of relying on other OEMs to develop a frame we can then sell technology to, the Dot Power Platform gives us the opportunity to take our technology all the way to market and to our customers,” says Wade Robey, executive director, Raven Autonomy.

Equipped with Raven steering, guidance, and propulsion technologies, Dot is a mobile diesel-powered platform designed to handle myriad ag implements semiautonomously. Once linked, Dot’s U-shape frame and the implement become one. A single Dot can cover up to 4,000 acres. 

Currently, there are three implements – a Seedmaster Ultra DSR seeder, a Pattison Liquid System Connect PLU S120 sprayer, and a New Leader NL5000 G5 Crop Nutrient Applicator. Raven’s vision is to add more implement partners to increase Dot’s value across the entire season.

Dot has been commercially available on a very limited basis in Canada since 2018. Raven took the same approach as it began selling units this past spring. Today, the power unit costs about $275,000. The average cost of an implement is around $125,000.

“We’ve been targeting modest sales in western Canada this spring with our initial crop of interest being small grains like canola,” Robey says. “We will continue to evolve the Dot platform with various improvements and will also have a number of units in the field with select customers to do additional validation and demonstration.”

As Dot is refined, platforms for row crops like corn and soybeans will be developed. 

Later this year, Raven will test Smart Ag perception and path planning technology, which it acquired last November, on the unit. The move will allow Dot to progress from a semi- to fully autonomous solution.

“We need to get more efficient and find ways to improve overall productivity,” Robey says. “We believe autonomy will deliver the results to help agriculture meet the demands of the future.”

Learn More: ravenprecision.com

Robots take to the sky

BOTTOM LINE:  Rantizo can provide precise custom applications exactly where and when farmers need them to get the most out of their fields.

robotstaketothesky2020

While some companies are opting to stay on the ground, Rantizo is deploying drones to precisely apply inputs where and when they are needed. By combining a DJI drone, autonomous hardware, and proprietary app software, the platform is an end-to-end solution that identifies problem areas, diagnoses field issues, sprays and applies required treatments, and verifies that issues have been addressed accurately.

“Drones can do more than just capture imagery for field data. Rantizo leverages that data to bridge the gap from analysis to action,” says Michael Ott, CEO of Rantizo.

To date, the platform can apply liquids, such as pesticide, and solids like fertilizer, cover crop seed, and beneficial insects. Since launching in 2018, Rantizo has added key upgrades. The most recent, a Mix & Fill auto-tendering station, increases field productivity from 14 acres per hour to 23 acres per hour.

While the base price for a DJI Agras MG-1P is $14,500, the company says because it customizes its solution to meet the needs of an individual operation, final prices vary.

In addition, there are currently 25 licensed, insured, trained, and certified application service contractors who can provide custom application services for herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, granular fertilizers, and cover crop seeds.  

This summer the company plans to introduce a Load & Go trailer along with proprietary Fly & Apply app software. “These additions will provide a turnkey solution for custom spraying applicators looking to provide Rantizo services,” Ott says.

Fifth-generation farmer Brian Pickering firmly believes in using technology to drive efficiency and sustainability. Drone technology, he says, is a perfect fit in helping him achieve that.

“With a drone I can spray soon after it rains, while a big ground rig cannot due to muddy conditions,” says Pickering, who is also an application service contractor with Rantizo. “Using aerial imagery, you only spray the trouble spots, which reduces costs, prevents overspraying, and slows resistance to pesticides. It’s a win for the farmer and the environment.”

Learn More: rantizo.com

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