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Justin Heath of SmartAg
Interviewed by Kevin Kimle - Excerpts

Kevin Kimle:  How do you think about short-term opportunities for automation in farm equipment versus long-term as you lay out a strategy for Smart Ag?

 

Justin Heath:  Short-term there's been a lot of interesting things happening, particularly in the driverless technology space. Automation covers a lot of ground. Driverless technology concept were introduced by some of the major OEMs a few years ago. I think those concepts, to some degree, backfired because they took the grower out of his machine and operation. The approach we’ve taken, short-term, is very simply an aftermarket retrofit kit solution. Take your existing vehicle, your existing tractors and make them driverless by installing some hardware and software. It's an approach that a lot of companies took 15, 20 years ago with auto-steer technology and it's pretty noninvasive and it still keeps the grower in control of his operation. Longer term, I think we will see technology moving more towards a swarm robot approach to autonomy with smaller vehicles and smaller implements, but with higher numbers of them in a field.

 

Kimle:  A swarm-like vision of farm equipment -- more or multiple pieces of equipment that are smaller with software playing a significant role in how they operate autonomously --  that's a break from what the trend has been of larger equipment that can go faster.

Heath:  The industry has addressed the labor issue with bigger, faster, heavier equipment. We don't agree with that approach. Large equipment is a challenge to operate. As the labor pool has dwindled and there's less qualified labor, it's not as easy to find people to operate the equipment.  Large equipment also  causes more issues such as soil compaction. Lastly, as equipment gets bigger and more technologically advanced it gets more expensive.

 

Kimle:  The per acre machinery cost of producing a bushel of grain is a big part of the pie chart for costs of production.

 

Heath:  It's significant. Absolutely. So we think we can help to start a new trend in agriculture, reducing per acre machinery expense.

 

Kimle:  What are some of the challenges to automation in agriculture?

 

Heath:  Safety is certainly a concern, though we have an advantage in that we are an off-road, autonomy focused business. We have boundaries that we work within, in a given field, geo-reference boundaries that the tractors simply can't operate outside of those boundaries. So we think we can address safety issues from several different angles, not only the way in which we tell the machine to operate, but all of the safety mechanisms that we built into the software as well, should anything go wrong. We feel very comfortable with the technology as it operates today as safe.  There's still the perception of driverless technology and safety that's a hurdle. We have to educate the marketplace as to how the technology works, how it can actually be smarter, probably  safer, than a human operator.

 

Kimle:  I gave a presentation and showed a picture of a 1917 Waterloo Boy Tractor, which is the company that Deere bought after they were unsuccessful in their first attempts to manufacture and market a tractor. So they acquired the business in Waterloo that manufactured the Waterloo Boy Tractor. Of course, today that's where their manufacturing plant is for large combines and tractors. So Deere began with small tractor that's not even head-high, and is kerosene powered. It's an improvement from a horse, but substantially different from the tractors of today. Justin, if we try to think forward 100 years from now, what do you think a tractor or whatever serves the tractor's purpose in agriculture will be like? How do you think about that? Really long-term.

 

Heath:  Deere looked at Waterloo Boy Tractor originally and said, this will never work. Farmers are too tied to animal husbandry. You'll never get a farmer to leave the horse and move to this contraption. And then a couple of years later they bought Waterloo Boy. We get that a lot today about our technology: 'You'll never get a farmer to leave the tractor. It's just part of how they live and what they do. You can't separate the tractor from the farmer.' I think a hundred years from now, we're going to be sort of at the same, looking back at this time in agriculture and saying this  was a transition point for agriculture. I believe you'll see a lot of smaller, lighter sort of Mars Rover-looking type vehicles doing the actual application in the field under the supervision of the producer or farm manager. I think we'll see that much sooner than a hundred years. That'll be the norm, how farming will be done. And I think that's a good thing. I think we can get growers to leave the tractor and start to focus more on the agronomics of producing a crop and where they can add value and improve there, and let the machine do the work. And so I think that's where it will be. I'm not sure exactly what the vehicles will look like, but I do believe that they'll be smaller, lighter, faster, and a lot of them. If you think about even other challenges, like weather. Things that we can't control. We know the growers have much smaller windows to get a crop in the ground today. Oftentimes you get three days here and then two weeks later you might get another day to plant just with the weird weather patterns. And so we think with automated equipment, we can address that challenge head on, more of them, faster, we can get a crop in the ground in a smaller window. And I think that being able to solve those real challenges on the farm, will help growers start to transition their mindset of, I can't leave the tractor cab.