At one time, driverless tractors seemed right out of a science fiction novel; but today we’re learning more about autonomous tractors becoming a reality in farming.
It may be a while before they become readily available to all, but thanks to a collaboration with Sabanto, NK Seeds and Crystal Valley Co-op, the opportunity to have a driverless tractor take part in planting this past spring in southern Minnesota became a reality.
For Sabanto co-founder and chief executive officer Craig Rupp, developing an autonomous tractor marries the two things he’s passionate about: farming and technology.
Rupp grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa. And while his career initially took him away from agriculture and into the cellular field, it was his desire to work in the agricultural sector that brought him to John Deere.
He used his electrical engineering background to develop the StarFire receiver navigation system and GreenStar touchscreen display. He then wanted to do something different and decided to start Sabanto with Kyler Laird.
“We met in 2017 at the AgBot Challenge held in Rockville, Ind.,” Rupp recalled. “We decided in the fall of last year to take autonomy into agriculture.”
By September 2018, Rupp had taken a JCB Fastrac with a Harvest International 18-row planter with precision planting equipment and made autonomous modifications to it. This past spring the goal was to have the tractor plant from the south to the north.
“We initially wanted to go from Texas to Canada,” Rupp said. Because of weather and logistical issues, the farthest south they went was Arkansas.
“We decided to pair it down and just go through the Midwest.” Rupp and Laird got their commercial driver’s licenses so they could drive the semi-truck with the tractor and planter on it around the Midwest.
“I’ve learned a lot. This whole spring was a learning experience” Rupp said.
There were definitely lessons learned from this first spring of planting with the autonomous tractor.
“We struggled with communications for a large portion of a day. We just couldn’t keep up our cellular link.” Rupp realized he was unable to use data on his phone — though he had four bars which he needed to run the planter.
“The solution to the problem hit me like a brick,” Rupp said. “I found a data services company in the Oklahoma panhandle. We used to deploy cellular repeaters and if not installed properly, the feedback will eliminate any chances of communicating. We were 50 feet from the farmer’s machine shed. Sure enough, he was using a number of cellular repeaters. Problem solved.”
Rupp enjoyed working with farmers across the Midwest. “The farmers were salt of the earth.” Those producers allowed Rupp to plant their fields. “We could clip off 500 acres in a day.”
Though the tractor was fully autonomous, there was a visual on it at all times.
“I was out in the field with a kill switch in my hand,” Rupp said. This initial planting opportunity was all about the experience. “I wanted to do this for the lowest cost possible.”
For the farmers and for Rupp, this was the chance to try something innovative.
“It was a learning experience for both of us.” The feedback he received from farmers he’s worked with on this is positive.
“They understand they have a labor shortage and see autonomy as a solution to some of their problems,” Rupp said.
“I think autonomy will be a reality,” Rupp said. “A farmer’s job isn’t really to be a tractor jockey, it’s to be an agronomist.” This technology lets farmers to get out from behind the wheel and have the time to devote to the health of their crops and soil.
For Mike Schultz, agronomist with NK Seeds, this was his first experience with autonomous tractors.
“We focused on working with individuals who wanted to be the first ones to witness and be a part of the future of farming,” Schultz said.
Being a part of this opportunity allowed Schultz to watch the autonomous tractor do its job.
“It was very surreal seeing the rig in action. In watching a driverless tractor perform such a critical task, you wonder what the not-so-distant future may hold. Planting may be just the start. Tillage, spraying and combining could all be possibilities.”
There’s never enough time or people when it comes to planting and harvest.
“It always seems that a farm and/or retail operation is one man and one rig short — especially during the compressed planting and harvest seasons we’ve been dealing with recently,” Schultz said.
Time is definitely of the essence when it comes to planting.
“Planting a crop on time is one of the most critical steps to setting the table for a successful crop. Having access to autonomous tractors and planters will make it possible for growers to be much more efficient during the planting season,” Schultz said.
Jason Leary, ag technology manager with Crystal Valley Co-op, worked with Sabanto and NK Seeds on this project.
“We’ve been talking all winter getting fields lined up,” Leary said. He worked to line up customers; but unfortunately, the wet spring didn’t allow the time for the tractor to do those fields. Instead, the tractor planted a test plot at Farmamerica in Waseca, Minn. “We laid out where they were going to go.”
For Leary, “it’s technology that’s been talked about; but to see it, it’s a reality check that it’s here. It was kind of amazing how technology in agriculture can go from an idea to actually happening.”
Leary believes that this type of technology would be a benefit in the fall in having an autonomous tractor do tillage. That seems to be the one thing that there’s never enough time for after harvest and before the weather turns too difficult.
That could be a big advantage to farmers in the area to have the ability for the tractor to follow the combine, but not need anyone in the cab to drive it.
The chance to see a glimpse into the future of agriculture first hand was a wonderful opportunity for all involved and provided a great collaboration between all three companies.
The Land is a sister publication of The Free Press.