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No farmworkers? No problem

Autonomous equipment is making it easier for farmers to do more with less labour

No farmworkers? No problem

Rob Saik believes farmers shouldn’t have to spend hours sitting in their tractors.

“We have the most skilled operators trapped in a glass cage for days on end,” he says.

Saik, CEO of DOT Technology Corporation, is at the forefront of the movement toward autonomous tractors. The Regina-based startup created a U-shaped platform that attaches to existing farm equipment and uses GPS co-ordinates to turn implements into autonomous machines that help farmers boost efficiency.

Labour shortages are driving the demand for autonomous farm equipment. A whopping 16,500 jobs went unfilled on Canadian farms in 2017, costing the agriculture sector $2.9 billion in lost revenue, and the problem is expected to get worse.

The dwindling pool of farmworkers has forced farmers to turn to autonomous innovations to help plant, protect and harvest their crops.

Some makers, like Autonomous Solutions Inc. and Bear Flag Robotics, work with original equipment manufacturers to integrate their self-driving platforms onto existing equipment while manufacturers like John Deere, AGCO and Case New Holland explore the possibilities of autonomous tractors.

“Finding qualified labour is a really serious problem,” Saik says. “Autonomous equipment can provide a solution to the rising constraint of lack of farm labour.”

In California, Bear Flag Robotics just introduced sensors that turn tractors from major manufacturers like Case IH, John Deere and Kubota, into autonomous machines. Farmers can plan routes, schedule jobs and command a fleet of tractors from their smartphones, freeing them up to focus on other tasks.

“Growers are asking for this tech,” says Daniel Carmichael, farming operations manager for Bear Flag Robotics. “You have the OEMs that build an amazing tractor with some incredible technology but they’re still not doing the fully autonomous… so we’re delivering the technology.”

The technology is currently offered as a service. Farmers can lease tillage equipment outfitted with Bear Flag Robotics’ sensors. Plans are in the works to add the self-driving sensors to additional implements that can be leased through the California startup.

In the future, Carmichael says, the platform will be sold as a product that farmers can use on their own equipment to turn their fleet into self-driving, super productive workhorses.

As farmers get more comfortable with the technology, tasks like seeding and spraying can be programmed to take place overnight, helping farmers become more efficient and productive.

Carmichael recalls talking to a dairy farmer who was going out to dinner with his granddaughters while the self-driving tractor tilled his field.

“Farmers are working 20-plus hours trying to get things done,” he says. “This technology is going to be revolutionary.”

Fewer skills required?

As the market moves toward autonomous equipment, manufacturers like John Deere are rolling out new tractor models that are easier for less-skilled workers to operate. One of the goals of developing the 8RX, a high-horsepower tractor, with advanced automation and self-driving features, was to address the labour shortage.

“You still have to have an operator in the cab but the more we can automate these machines, the skillset needed to get that job done changes, which helps address the major challenge of labour shortages,” says Cyndee Smiley, public relations manager for John Deere.

In addition to helping farmers manage their operations with less manpower, autonomous tractors could also improve crop health and yield.

“One of the questions I’ve been asking farmers is, ‘What would you do on your farm if you didn’t have to do it?’” Saik says. “Would you make another pass with a growth regulator? Would you go in-crop and spread granular fertilizer? Would you do more variable rate desiccation of the crop? How many things would you do if you didn’t have to sit in a machine all day?”

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