Created with Sketch.

Navigating the Digital Frontier

How to make sense of it all

Data. Automation. Hardware and software. Growers have more technology than ever at their disposal, but how to make sense of it all? Growers are figuring that out. 

A suite of new technologies has come available to help tackle the age-old problem of labor shortages and other issues growers have been dealing with for decades — centuries even. All of them have one thing in common — digitization. But what is digitization and how do growers wrap their heads around it?  

“In the early days, no one really knew what ‘digital’ meant — but we all thought it was a cool word. Digital platforms mean so many different things to so many different people,” says Roger Rotariu, North American Marketing Lead for Nuseed.  “In a lot of ways, for me, it’s just a new way of doing things, a new way of capturing information. You can do with it what you want to — keep it simple or get really deep into it, if that’s your thing. It’s a tool like any other, really.”  

Rotariu’s been in the seed business long enough to remember when things moved slower than they do today.  

“As recently as five years ago, in order to launch a new seed variety or hybrid, you’d have to go out there and compare 40 acres of this against 40 acres of that. You’d have to be there right when the farmer took his combine out because you can’t hold them up. They’ve got, you know, 5,000 other acres to combine in a short window,” he recalls.  “Now, we have tools that really shave a lot of that time off. Things really have changed. It’s a totally new world in terms of how easy it is to start proof testing new products and sunflower and canola growers are benefiting in all kinds of ways.”  

More Autonomy 

Imagine spending more time out of the cab, knowing that tasks are still being accomplished with absolute precision. Imagine not needing anyone to drive that tractor, and not having to worry about having enough people on hand to do the work.  

Skilled farm labor is becoming harder to find every year, the capital cost of new equipment is extremely high, and used equipment depreciates quickly. Standardized autonomous power units are the ideal solution, according to Wade Robey, Executive Director for Raven Autonomy. They reduce labor costs and are less costly to operate providing improved efficiency, he says.  

Equipment design is simplified, and a wide range of implements will be available allowing for multiple operations across the growing season without the limitation of skilled labor. This combined with the ability to use a single power platform that links with multiple implements provides significant capital cost advantages per acre while lowering depreciation expense.  

Early in 2020, Raven acquired DOT Technology Corp., the developer of the DOT Autonomous Power Unit (APU). Raven DOT has the ability to pair with a wide range of implements which are critical to agricultural production and will offer a variety of labor-saving solutions to farmers and agri-retailers alike, according to Robey.  

Fusing Raven’s current precision ag technology portfolio with Dot, and the recently acquired Smart Ag now provides Raven with core technology platforms in communication and logistics, guidance and steering, path planning, perception and obstacle avoidance and machine and application control. It is this combination of technologies that enables Raven to deliver autonomous solutions to the market today.  

The key in the future will be to develop a wide range of the most critical farm implements that will connect into the Raven DOT and allow growers to automate their operations like they have never been able to before, Robey says. “We currently offer an autonomous seeder that’s built by SeedMaster and a sprayer that is built by Pattison Liquid Systems, both Canadian ag equipment manufacturers. We also offer a spreader that was built by Iowa-based New Leader. Raven’s vision is to build the APU, and then partner with equipment providers to bring implements to DOT that are compatible with the platform and can perform the most critical operations on farm,” Robey says.  

DOT is powered by a 173 HP Cummins diesel engine, which drives four hydrostatic pumps (one for each wheel) and an auxiliary pump for implement operation. The power from each hydrostatic pump is transferred to its designated wheel via hydraulic hose. Each wheel has a hydraulic motor running a planetary gear box that can power the unit smoothly at any speed, from creeping to 12 MPH.  

In fields, DOT operates within prescribed, farmer-approved routes that are generated through the simple creation of highly accurate boundaries. Positional information from an RTK GPS receiver mounted on Dot ensures it is always operating within the approved area. If DOT drifts from its path, it will halt movement and send a message to the operator.  

“We are looking at how this technology can benefit farmers who plant small grains, including canola, and we see significant potential for labor savings and improved efficiency in their operations. Canola is one of Canada’s biggest crops, and the potential for value creation is tremendous. Raven DOT is a technology that is readily adaptable to high value crops like canola and we will see rapid adoption of autonomy in the Canadian market in the coming years,” Robey says.  

Right now, DOT is being run and validated in the field by Raven’s team of engineers and support staff. As Raven re-introduces DOT for commercial sale in the market next year, it will include a full suite of perception, obstacle detection and avoidance technologies. DOT will be able to run autonomous missions in the field, Robey adds.  

“There will definitely be labor savings associated when you remove the operator from the cab. DOT will also allow farmers to run longer hours and even have 24-hour operations using these technologies. Additionally, because you can lay out a route plan and you can optimize it, there will be an opportunity to do those seeding, spraying and spreading operations more efficiently and more safely, because you’re removing humans from the machine.”  

The farmer will continue to play the pivotal role and he sees DOT and the company’s other autonomous offerings working in the field alongside manned vehicles that are coordinated and connected to share the workload for many years to come. “This combination will allow farmers to optimize their activities and perform farm operations within shorter time windows, with improved agronomic results and with better bottom-line economic outcomes.”