At the advent of the 21st century, the promise of self-driving vehicles and robots was a frequent source of ridicule in agriculture, but less than 20 years later, automated technology of all stripes rolls across farmland—and the laughter long since has faded. In rapid succession, attitudes toward unmanned equipment jumped from mockery to curiosity to anticipation to recognition.
Without hyperbole, every facet of agriculture is affected at some level by automation. In 2019, three significant technologies making noise on North American farms include the DOT Power Platform, a groundbreaking autonomous U-shaped frame capable of handling a multitude of farm implements; AutoCart, a driverless tractor for grain harvest; and SmartCore, a robot soil sampler aimed at extreme accuracy and high-paced performance.
DOT Power Platform
In 2014, at the initial stages of building an autonomous seeder, Saskatchewan producer Norbert Beaujot changed focus to a multi-platform unit capable of autonomously adapting to any implement. Translation: Build a basic driverless machine and drop in implements in plug-and-play fashion, enabling a grower to use the unit across all farming seasons and field activity.
At its U-shaped base, DOT is roughly 20’ long, weighs 13,500 lb., reaches up to 12 mph, and is powered by a 173 HP Cummins diesel engine, which drives a hydrostatic pump for each wheel and an additional pump for implement operation (five total pumps).
DOT operates according to GPS coordinates across farmer-approved routes or a hand-held remote. “Because of where we’re at with governmental regulations, we ask operators to stay within sight of the DOT machine this year, but as we move forward it will be fully autonomous,” says Leah Olson, CEO of both Dot Technology Corp. and SeedMaster Manufacturing (sister companies sharing DOT ownership).
DOT is “exceptionally simple” when connecting to equipment, according to Olson: “When the U-shape platform looks at an implement, it approaches, picks it up, and locks it in place. Instead of pulling in the implement, it lifts it up and sets in in place, creating a unique weight distribution.”
For spring 2019 release, compatible implements include a 30’ SeedMaster drill, a 120’-boom Pattison Connect sprayer, as well as a SeedMaster grain cart. However, Olson sees 100-plus implements on the current market as DOT-ready. “It’s going to be relatively easy to make them compatible. Part of what drives Norbert’s vision is making it easy for growers to transition to autonomous farming.”
Olson compares DOT to an iPhone and implements to apps. “An iPhone without apps is not valuable. DOT allows us to offer opportunity to short-line manufacturers to get into autonomous production at a quick pace and a substantially lower cost than if they proceeded alone. It’s a clear plug-and-play for manufacturers, and makes it easier for farmers to access everything.”
And farmer reaction? “Videos spark interest, but seen in person, DOT produces a bit of shock and awe. I would love to have heard what farmers said about tractors and the opportunity to replace a team of mules in 20s and 30s,” Olson concludes. “It’s been a long time since we had something as significant as DOT and the future is very bright.”
After days spent scratching dirt as a young teenager on Iowa farmland, Colin Hurd, founder and CEO of Smart Ag, sees continued consolidation stamped on agriculture. “Farms will keep getting bigger and a challenge will be finding people to run equipment. If you want to grow, you’ve got to consider automation technology. Almost nobody had autosteer when it first came out nearly 20 years ago, but now most farms use it. The same adoption is going to take place with self-driving tractors.”
Smart Ag develops autonomous solutions for row crop agriculture and the Ames-based company’s latest innovation is AutoCart, enabling full automation of a grain cart tractor. The AutoCart kit includes hardware, wire harnessing and sensors—state of the art machine learning intended for simple setup and operation. “Total installation by a dealer can be completed in less than eight hours, and once installed, you just run the AutoCart app on your tablet. There are only a couple of functions and it’s very easy,” Hurd explains.
Type in a destination on a field map, drop a pin, and the tractor heads for the destination. When the combine is full, request synchronization and the tractor drives alongside, allowing for unloading. “The biggest value is to have a grain cart when you need it, because so many farms struggle to find seasonal labor to do jobs well,” Hurd continues. “AutoCart pays off so well efficiency-wise. It’s really expensive not to have grain cart operator when you need one.”
Due to AutoCart’s success, Hurd, 29, was recognized by Forbes as a member of the 2019 30 Under 30 list in the manufacturing/industry category. He intends to expand AutoCart’s driverless capacity to tillage, and says farmer perspective on automation is changing. “Just in the last three years, we’ve seen a big difference in attitude. Make a difference in someone’s bottom line and they will adopt. At Smart Ag, we’re dealing with labor scarcity, not replacing people-type jobs. Labor is a steady problem and it’s only going to get worse.”
“Automation is not going to run the farm,” Hurd adds. “It won’t replace good judgement. A farmer will always be an accountant, agronomist, mechanic, and marketer. Automation won’t tell him exactly how to farm, but it is a huge help, and that’s right where technologies like AutoCart fit in.”
In 2013, Troy Fiechter was tired of spending $75 per acre on soil fertility on his Indiana farm, prior to nitrogen application, and getting sketchy results on soil sampling. Relying on an agriculture engineering background, Fiechter turned a Skidsteer into SmartCore, a driverless, soil sampling beast. “We were sampling every other year, and using an $8 sample to affect a $150 decision. Getting back misleading data was worse than no data at all. I knew there had to be a much better way.”
“We looked at the auger systems out there because they extract sample cores with more depth consistency than probes, and most spun at about 100 rpm. They don’t always work in finer texture soils where you have to clean out the bottom of the hole. And, it doesn’t help when everyone sets their GPS for soil sampling, and drives 35 mph on an ATV across a field waiting to line up their crosshairs for the sampling point,” explains Fiechter, CEO of West Lafayette-based Rogo. “Hitting the location within 25’-plus isn’t good enough. We see artificial VRT maps created all the time by incorrect soil sampling. These are serious issues that directly affect profit.”
Traditional soil sampling methods, according to Fiechter, often lack depth, location and cross-contamination control. Enter SmartCore—an automated vehicle aimed at precision soil sampling within inches across an entire field, provided as a service, not sold as a product. “First, we made our machine drive itself to ensure location repeatability. We added an auger at 800 rpm with a cleaning collar to ensure soil is extracted at the precise depth, and developed onboard packaging and software to accommodate any farmer’s needs. All parameters are customizable.”
On a given field, a member of Rogo’s crew ground-truths for any missed obstacles on an ATV, while the SmartCore vehicle operates at a 500-acre capacity without stopping and can hold up to 200 samples. (SmartCore covers up to 800 acres per day.)
“It takes a straight piece of plastic formed into a tube and dumps the soil in the top, then seals, keeping the chain connected and therefore we always know the order and number; a snake of bags goes in the box. The simplicity is powerful and works so well.”
SmartCore was awarded the Farmer’s Choice Winner at the 2018 Farmer2Farmer conference hosted by Farmers Business Network, and is available primarily in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio, with preparation for expansion into other Midwestern states.
“Rogo is the first company to provide an autonomous service for row crops that people are paying for,” Fiechter concludes. “Forget cool robots and the romance of new technology; we need to ensure we’re solving real problems for the farmer. That’s what automation should be all about.”