It left me saying to myself, “Get your head around that!” There was no real doubt about it, after all. The industry’s biggest surprise this summer was the out-of-the-blue introduction at the Ag in Motion farm show near Saskatoon in July of SeedMaster’s autonomous new implement carrier, dubbed the DOT.
Not only is the DOT the first fully autonomous machine for the broad-acre farm equipment market, it was also conceived and built by a family-owned, short-line implement brand that has never before dabbled in powered equipment.
And it is designed on a large enough scale to fit right into existing farming operations.
So we should all be saying, “Get your head around that.”
The DOT will actually hit the market in time for 2018, although in limited release. The company hopes to sell six machines before next spring to a select group of early adopters. And it has created a spinoff brand, Dot Technologies, to carry the machine forward into full-fledged market penetration.
“We’re hand picking six farmers we want to work with that are within 100 miles of Regina,” said Norbert Beaujot, DOT inventor and president of SeedMaster. “They’ll be people we know we can work with on the evolution of the product through the first year.”
The overall concept behind DOT really isn’t new, however. Many companies, often in conjunction with universities all across the world, have been developing similar autonomous machines. But now farmers and those in the machinery industry must come to grips with the fact that the world has changed. Robots are no longer just interesting R&D projects dreamed up by computer nerds and limited to working in tiny test plots.
Now, DOT machines will be in the field seeding some serious commercial acres, and this in turn seems to have sparked a new round of coffee-shop discussions.
As staff from SeedMaster were busy conducting demonstrations for large crowds at the Saskatchewan show, I stood with an executive from a full-line brand a few hundred yards away at his company’s display.
“What does this mean for us,” he mused rhetorically.
A few days later at a field day at SeedMaster’s research farm, the company invited farmers and others to see DOT actually work a field. One SeedMaster executive commented, “I think we’ve been talked about in boardrooms all across the U.S. this past week.”
Yeah. I think so too.
Seedmaster president Norbert Beaujot later confirmed that within a week of DOT’s public debut, he was busy fielding calls from people and brands all across the world, including in Australia, who want to know more about the project. That includes at least one other manufacturer, who had a representative in the crowd at the field day, presumably to see what it means for them.
Beaujot said the company will work with any manufacturer that wants to create dedicated implements designed to work with a DOT implement carrier — and not just in the ag sector. He sees it having applications in other off-road environments too, like mining.
“I’ve got a list of about 104 implements, and it’s basically everything you see on a farm — and commercial as well, construction and mining,” Beaujot said.
Back at the farm show, DOT was shown working with a dedicated SeedMaster drill, a grain tank that could haul from combines during harvest, a sprayer with a 60-foot boom, and land roller attachments.
While DOT’s introduction at the show was a surprise, some farmer and industry responses also surprised SeedMaster executives, who encountered a little resistance to the autonomous machine. Perhaps it was just the inevitable response to change.
“I realized up there (at the Saskatoon show) it kind of scared the hell out of people in some ways,” Beaujot told those in attendance at the research farm event a week later. “What is the future? Do we have to rethink our farms? Those thoughts were going through farmers’ minds. Change is scary. It always is.”
Those questions were being asked and answered with varying degrees of insight, including on social media sites during the Saskatoon show, with comments running from excited approval to vehement criticism.
“The scariest thing people need to get their heads around is being out of the cab,” Beaujot said. “We’ve already determined we can live our lives through monitors, sensors and devices that are better than we are at moving, steering and stopping. There’s not one in this room that would try to compete at steering an A-B line with a good auto-steer system.”
That notion that operators are currently connecting the dots when setting up auto guidance in existing equipment was partly the inspiration for DOT’s name. And with reliable sensor systems that have been in use for years now in a variety of industries, including the auto sector, Beaujot made the point that operating an autonomous vehicle is likely to reduce the number of on-farm accidents, not increase them. “The technology for obstacle avoidance has become so cheap and so predictable, I have no doubt this will save a lot of lives,” he says.
There is also a big difference between the collision avoidance software required for on-road vehicles versus machines that work in farm fields. Automotive systems must analyze a variety of factors, including the movements of nearby vehicles and the colour of traffic lights. Ag machine obstacle avoidance software, on the other hand, only has to make one decision: is there an obstacle in front of it that requires it to stop?
“With DOT the only decision it makes is if it sees an obstacle, it stops and notifies you,” explained Beaujot. “The human still decides, is this a slough I need to back out of or is it a tumble weed that stopped me? With remote cameras you can tell from where you are how to instruct the machine to move on.”
One question remained, however, and I had to ask it. How is it a company that has so far focused solely on small grains seeding equipment managed to beat others to the head of the line and become the first to announce the market release of an autonomous field robot?
“It’s my hobby. It’s my passion. I call it my retirement project,” Beaujot said with a smile. “The broader goal I was working on three years ago was how do we get agriculture efficient again. We’re good at building bigger and bigger equipment and doing a good job for farmers. But the bigger they got, the less efficient they got overall. And part of that efficiency issue is that when things go wrong, the whole farm is in jeopardy.”
So after three years in development, DOT, Beaujot’s vision for improved efficiency will soon be released into a few Saskatchewan farm fields, and probably many more in 2019. But, he acknowledged there is more work to be done in the months ahead. Given the leap ahead in design, it seems likely that there will be a need for a few engineering refinements once DOT robots get a few thousand acres under their belts in the first year.
“It’ll be a long story going forward,” Beaujot said. “We’re just at the beginning of that. It’s exciting.”