Automation and autonomy in agriculture

    Driverless combines and cultivators autonomously supervised hundreds of miles away from the fields are not dreams of the future. They are here now and Mark Moran, lead of Advanced Sensing Emerging Technology and head of John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group in Champaign, and Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto, shared how and why this technology is happening in agriculture during their presentations during The Chicago Farmers’ October 5, 2020, webinar.

    “United States agriculture has tripled output in the last 70 years,” said Mark. With worldwide populations growing, we can’t let up on the creation of food.”

    Agriculture is moving to a smart industrial operating model, according to Mark. He noted that agriculture today is unbelievably high tech. “There is a lot of advanced technology on a combine. There are more lines of code on a combine than on a fighter jet,” said Mark.

    Over the years, John Deere has developed machinery that supports precision agriculture and autonomy and brings decision making to the plant level, Mark said. The enormity of planting (the United States plants two trillion corn seeds per year) and the increasing unpredictability of weather are fueling the need to get into the field right away. Information and communication technology are key elements of precision ag, along with autonomy or automatic navigation.

    Every autonomous system is based on sense-decide-act. For example, the weed control product See and Spray senses what is happening on the ground, decides what the weed is and sprays that weed, not the plant, Mark said.

     “Autonomy is not science fiction and it is not technology change, it’s people change. People’s jobs in agriculture are changing,” Mark related. “An autonomous system requires set-up (navigation), path planning (obstacle avoidance), job planning, and remote supervision. Sending a tractor down a field is not the same as a driverless automobile on the road.”

    An electrical engineer by education, Craig grew up on a farm in Iowa and worked for a time at John Deere.  Co-founder of 640 Labs, an agricultural technology startup, Craig wanted to solve a problem in 2018 that every farmer has: labor shortage. He noted that the American farmer is aging, rural communities are dwindling, there are fewer opportunities for the young, families are smaller, farms are getting larger, and farmers are increasingly relying on outside labor.

    “Labor already is a problem for farmers. I believed that autonomous machines would fill the labor gap that agriculture is experiencing,” said Craig.

    In 2018, Craig founded Sabanto, which provides total turn-key ag operations using autonomously supervised equipment. In the spring of 2019, Sabanto began autonomous planting. After purchasing equipment, Craig’s company began planting in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois. He also built a team (the most competent people I know, said Craig) and built a fleet of planters. Craig leased a 60 horsepower Kubota tractor, which was powerful enough to pull a five-row planter, and a three-quarter ton truck, which could transport the tractor.

    “We are able to cover 130 acres per day with one system with less compaction.” said Craig. “We have deployed three units in a field, planting simultaneously.”

    He noted that while his autonomous planters were planting in a field in Sac City, Iowa, he was a mile way. Sabanto recently completed rotary hoeing for a 20,000 acre organic grower in Nebraska. After buying a cultivator, Craig cultivated an organic bean field in Burlington, Iowa. “After we dropped off the equipment in Iowa, one of our engineers in Chicago monitored it for an 18 hour run,” Craig shared.

    After a number of farmers asked if Sabanto could take over their fall tillage on their farms, Craig purchased a tillage machine. “While our autonomous tiller did the tilling on an Illinois field, the farmer’s employee was hauling grain,” Craig recounted. He noted that while he was giving his presentation for Chicago Farmers, his equipment was tilling land in Harvard, Illinois.

    Craig said he was asked to provide cover crop seeding and started doing that in November 2018 with a cover crop of winter wheat in Champaign.

    In response to questions about dealing with obstacles, such as mud holes, Mark answered, “We figure out mathematically what the ground is and have the equipment identify if the obstacles are doable and solvable problems. If the technology gets into trouble, it asks for help, or it can take care of it. If necessary, a person is sent out to resolve the issue.”

    Craig responded, “We monitor the health of the system. We know what speed we should be running at. We have not had any of our equipment stuck yet.”

    Craig and Mark agreed that autonomy would be more available in agriculture long before it is on the highways.

    “We can lay out a business case with autonomous ag; we can point to how much it is saving the farmer. It is hard to build a business case with the autonomous car,” Mark said. “Car technology is not rugged enough for farming. We are competing for talent, although our location in the University of Illinois Research Park allows us to be close to the talent. Ag has some really cool problems, we are hiring programmers to help feed the world. We are competing with industry such as Tesla, Facebook and Google, not just other ag companies. Once people understand how noble the work is (feeding the world) and how advanced our problems are, we can get students excited about ag. We have to tell our story.”

    Written by Denise Faris, The Chicago Farmers Editor