Two years ago, the belle of the ball at the fall farm shows was a “concept” autonomous tractor showcased by CNH. No doubt, it was cool. But the problem was it was still a “concept,” and no matter how badly you wanted to be the first farmer in your county to own one, it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
Fast forward two years, and one small ag tech startup has turned CNH’s concept into reality. A company called Smart Ag is the one turning heads as it rides the “autonomous” technology wave that is very quickly propelling the automobile industry toward a “driverless” future. Smart Ag is turning existing guidance-capable tractors into autonomous ones with a real purpose.
The initial focus of Smart Ag was to tackle one of the most thankless, monotonous and nerve-racking tasks on the farm—that is the job of the grain cart operator. Come harvest, it is all hands on deck, and many farms increasingly don’t have enough qualified hands. The farmer or the most senior, qualified employee is obviously going to be operating the combine worth half a million dollars-plus. Then, you have your best drivers in the cabs of the grain trucks, and your operations managers are back at the grain elevator. That doesn’t leave too many veterans on the farm team from which to choose.
So addressing that particular pain point seemed to be a good place to start when Smart Ag was looking at where to go first with its autonomous technology. Its AutoCart technology allows a combine operator to set staging and unloading locations throughout a field and adjust speed, monitor location and command the grain cart to sync. This is all done without anyone in the cab of the tractor pulling the grain cart. And that piece of reality is what makes the biggest first impression. If you have a tractor with a cab and it’s moving through the field, then every bone in your body says that somebody still should be in there!
But the longer lasting impression that Smart Ag is betting on is that over time such automation will be less costly, more trainable and more skilled than the candidates left in the rural labor pool. The current price to convert an existing tractor to the Smart Ag technology is just south of $40K. And as it is with most technologies, as adoption ramps up, the cost will likely go down, and the technology’s year-round capabilities will go up.
Farming is a seasonal, high-dollar, high-wire act, and the real burning questions that technology must answer today are those oriented to the more basic needs at the boots-on-the-ground level. The most urgent of those needs, given this long road of increasingly thin margins, is the need to control costs and increase overall ROI.
That’s why the spotlight is shining even brighter right now on technologies like Smart Ag and other innovative technologies being introduced such as the Smart Spraying application system from BASF and Bosch. This technology came to BASF when regulators required Bayer to shed assets before its acquisition of Monsanto could be finalized.
This “see-and-spray” technology could end up being the pearl of the boatload of digital assets that BASF recently acquired in the process.
It is quite evident that “machine learning” technology and artificial intelligence are rapidly getting smarter by the day. If this technology is anything like the “concept” tractor introduced two years ago, then we’ll be seeing “smart sprayers” that can discern the viable plants of a growing crop from weeds in actual fields very soon. This technology not only identifies the weed, but it also custom mixes different herbicides right in a specific nozzle based on the weed type, and it does all of those tasks in the blink of an eye.
Again, though all of this is cool stuff, the grounded reality of what it could do to a farm’s bottom line is even cooler. Initial projections are that such technology could reduce overall inputs of herbicides by more than 90%. That has not only major positive implications for a farmer’s cost of production, but it also directly addresses another burning issue, and that is checking more of the right boxes in the age of “sustainability.”
Seeing the technology on display at the farm shows, one thing is evident, and that is that the likely winners in the ag technology space will be the ones whose innovations and products can directly drive ROI back to the bottom line the fastest. It is clear that the race is on, and it’s an exciting one to watch.
Join Steve Cubbage at the 2018 AgTech Expo as he’ll lead breakout sessions to discuss how data can drive decisions and how to get ready for blockchain.