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Taking autonomy into the field

Finally, self-drive technology is moving onto real farms

If there was any doubt that how we farm is undergoing a foundational change, this should convince you that there is mammoth change on the horizon. In July the federal government pledged $49.5 million to the Alberta Innovates program to advance research and development in agricultural automation as part of the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN).

“The program,” said the announcement, “will use a variety of technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced sensors, hyper-spectral imaging, and blockchain for, among other things, advancing automation and robotics in agriculture.”

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The $49.5 million in funding will “bring together the private sector, academia and research institutions to drive automation and digitization of Canada’s agricultural sector,” it claims. “CAAIN is expected to begin with eight partners from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec.”

The eight corporate and academic partners will conduct most of their research at the Olds College research farm in Alberta.

Among those eight partners is Saskatchewan’s DOT Technologies, which had already sold several early production autonomous implement platforms this spring.

But even with that commercial introduction, which has now put autonomous machines to work on prairie farms in earnest, management at DOT made it clear the machine is still in the very early stages of commercialization, and it is working closely with the new owners involved in the limited release to provide close technical support.

In that context, the Alberta project will also go a long way to further improving and advancing the DOT concept, not to mention blending it with a variety of other initiatives like advanced data collection and analysis. Altogether, we’ll see more on-farm efficiencies and agriculture will be pushed, willingly or not, toward a bold and very different future.

With autonomous platforms already in the field, what does full autonomy look like from a farmer perspective at this stage? Have those futuristic Star Trek-like promo videos I’ve often been shown by other major brands at press events become the reality for owners of early-stage robotic equipment, or are they about to be?

To find out, I met up with Dustin Burns at the Ag in Motion farm show in Langham who farms near Kandahar, Sask. Burns is one of the first producers to step up and purchase an early release autonomous platform from DOT Technologies. We had a conversation about his experience so far with an autonomous field robot in the farm fleet.

“This year, obviously, it required significant oversight, as everyone wants to be careful,” Burns said. “It’s an autonomous machine without an operator on it. We had a lot of rules and regulations to make sure we didn’t have a bad incident.

“With any new equipment there are a lot of adjustments. We run SeedMaster drills, so we’re familiar with the opener, but the interface is very different. And of course, the interface is remote because you’re not physically on the machine. There is a lot of forethought required; you have to map the fields ahead of time. There is a program that plans the path and you have to approve it, so it doesn’t go where it shouldn’t go.

“I imagine as time goes on, that’s going to be a lot more streamlined. This is a very, very first step into that side of the industry, autonomy.”

DOT Technologies has made their autonomous implement carrier available to a limited number of customers for the 2019 season.
photo: Scott Garvey

At the time we spoke, Burns had used the DOT in his spring seeding operation. “It’s definitely a different mindset,” he says. “And it requires more foresight in your planning. Year after year, that may change. You may be able to do a year of planning and the next year will be easier. You need to go into it with an open mind. And with a curious mind too, because it’s definitely a very different way of operating.”

For this year, the Burns farm incorporated a single DOT into its fleet, but that machine on its own couldn’t completely handle all the seeding acres on the farm, at least not under the current requirements for oversight.

“Right now we’re a farm that runs three 90-foot drills, and all we ran this spring was the (one DOT) seeding tool. We didn’t run the sprayer. That’s a 30-foot seeder. So just by straight math we need nine DOT units to replace three 90-foot units.”

That means for this year, Burns really didn’t see any boost in efficiency in his human workforce.

“At this stage it’s not going to replace what people currently do,” he says. “You can’t just change everything over. We don’t want nine operators instead of three, so obviously the first step is we need nine DOT units that can be managed by a single person. Maybe that number is three. Maybe it’s more than three. Maybe it’s limitless; we’ll know as time goes forward. But that’s when we’re going to be seeing efficiencies.”

To be fair, the current restrictions on use of a DOT machine require the heightened level of supervision for several legal and practical reasons, recognizing the technology is still in the early stages of its evolution. A serious accident at this stage could push back implementation pretty significantly. So any full optimization gains from autonomy aren’t yet available to DOT users. With the first seeding season using an autonomous machine under his belt, though, Burns thinks that’s bound to change.

“Truthfully, I can foresee a day when you’ll sit at your desk, send it out and it’ll do what it needs to do. You’ll have to do all the preliminary work, map the field, have your prescriptions and everything in place, because it can’t make the decisions if it should seed in an area or not, or spray, or spread fertilizer. Definitely, I can see it taking off.”

And even though he had to keep the DOT platform company as it worked his fields, he thinks it still allowed him more time for multi-tasking.

“If you think about it, auto steer has made it so I can do a lot more functions sitting in the tractor cab while the tractor is driving itself,” he says. “If I have a two-mile-long field, I can be marketing or making contacts, banking or whatever. My cell phone is what used to be a desktop computer. That’s where DOT is going to come into play. You are still physically at the field, but you don’t have to be physically operating it.”

So this year having a DOT on the farm demonstrated there could be some initial time savings even in the short term, but was there a financial gain for him?

[In the] short term, no,” he says. “Long term, that’s the goal. On our operation we need more than one machine to start seeing a payback. It’s a matter of scale.”

It’s easy to overlook the significance of the 2019 seeding season. It was the first year the Prairies saw field-scale robots working commercially. Everything from laws regarding their movement to the mindset of producers in the market for new equipment is now changing.

Early adopters, like Burns, are the ones who’ll lead those changes. But Burns says joining that select group was a decision that required a lot of deliberation beforehand.

“We tried to really think and research it before we made a decision, because it was not an easy decision. So we kind of had our eyes open. I don’t know that I can say there were any real big surprises. It was kind of a slow introduction for us, because we saw some of the (engineering) progression along the way. They (DOT Technologies) invited us to be part of a focus group in 2018. There was a lot of apprehension in the group I think, but we felt, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It’s a bit of a risk, but it’s exciting.”

Now that he’s had his first season with the DOT platform, he is sold on the concept of autonomy, but maybe not in the way you might think.

“For us, we’re going to follow along and see where it goes. I don’t think it’ll be all or nothing. What I see on our farm is on parts of it we will run autonomous equipment, but we’ll have an operator in the same area running a manual drill. Maybe we’ll downsize one of our 90-foots and run three DOTs instead alongside two other 90-foots or a couple of smaller drills. I’m not sure what that looks like. I still foresee needing an operator in the vicinity.”

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CG Machinery Editor

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