Steve Cubbage: Robots Get Real In A Hurry

03:24PM Dec 10, 2019
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History will be the judge and only time will tell. At the tail end of the year 2019 we may have witnessed a watershed moment in the history of agriculture.

During the 20th century the industry of agriculture certainly had a few giant leaps forward that transformed it into something out of an H.G. Wells novel. You had the Iron Horse take the place of real ones in the fields. You had a Green Revolution that exponentially grew the productivity of the cultivated land. Then the biotech revolution saw the making of plants that could protect themselves against pests and tolerate herbicides that killed weeds but not the crop. Finally, you had a tech revolution that gave us satellite farming that allowed us to farm down to the square foot.

The moment that we’re talking about now is about is one where the Iron Horse does not have a rider or driver onboard. Autonomous agriculture vehicles and robots in fields just got a lot more real in the last few months as one particular company is consolidating its focus on fully commercializing this technology.

In nearly back-to-back acquisitions, Sioux Falls, South Dakota based Raven Industries has gone “all-in” on autonomous by very quickly adding two startup technology companies into their agricultural business portfolio. First it secured majority ownership of DOT Technology Corp., manufacturer of autonomous agricultural platforms based in Regina, SK, Canada. On the heels of that announcement it acquired Smart Ag Inc., a technology company based out of Ames, IA. 

DOT Technology is best known for its development of a “large” robotic platform that features transformer-like flexibility of converting from a seeder to a fertilizer spreader or to even to a spraying platform. Meanwhile, Smart Ag made its name as the “driverless grain cart” company that took auto steer to a whole new level and took the driver out of cab of the tractor. And in turn it could do autonomously the thankless job of keeping up with the combine.

It is true that the farm press and futurists love writing and commenting about this Mars rover-like technology that will “someday” change modern agriculture as we know it. It’s fun to talk about but tomorrow has always seemed a day away. We get so caught up in the “technology” we fail to focus on what “problem” such said technology even solves. I’ve been blinded by that myself — blinded by the bells and whistles. The real questions that should be asked are — will such technology even be adopted and for what reason?

That’s what feels different about this particular sequence of events. This movement now has a sense of urgency. And reading the tea leaves it shows that there is a clearer focus of where this technology will likely be deployed first. When you start to connect the dots it is becoming clear that commercial application primarily driven by ag retail is where autonomy will likely make its first mark. 

For companies like Raven its part genius really. The company dominates the agricultural liquid application and commercial control market. And at the retail level the business of commercial application is littered with extreme inefficiencies. If you’re just talking machine efficiencies the average application machine spends less than 30 percent of its total running time actually applying. That means more than 70 percent of the time it is not making any money for the ag retail-er. The double whammy comes when you also realize that such inefficiencies transcends to the operator sitting in the seat of these machines as well.

With DOT Technologies’ previous business alignments with New Leader, one of the industry leading manufacturers of fertilizer application spreader beds, Raven has seemingly assembled the whole package necessary for commercial application autonomy. You have the versatile DOT platform that can either be a sprayer, spreader or seeder. You have the machine learning chops of Smart Ag. Plus, you have the industry name in fertilizer spreaders to spread fertilizer in New Leader and you have the built in advantage of having your own branded flow controls and controllers to plug everything in to. 

The possibilities this could open up for ag retail are tremendous and it could solve some issues that constantly nag this industry segment. It is extremely hard to find and then keep good, qualified applicators. If you think finding grain cart operators is hard, try finding operators for spray and spreader rigs in bulk. It is no secret agriculture is a seasonal business but ag retail is seasonal on steroids. This could directly address this issue with fleet managers controlling multiple smaller rigs and tender truck operators possibly overseeing and servicing them as the boots on the ground presence. Accuracy and application efficiencies should improve significantly. Who knows you may even have rental fleets of autonomous applicators that could travel within regions of the country throughout a crop year. The bottom line is this puts all kinds of new possibilities on the table. 

Granted, yes we still are at least one more day away from this being the everyday reality, but with bold industry moves like this it is now coming sooner rather than later. And be sure there are plenty of other companies out there who will not go quietly into the night and concede future autonomous machine market to just one or two companies. It should be exciting and if I’m an ag retailer I’m going to be looking very closely and positioning my operations for quite possibly the next ag revolution.