Autonomous plantation of Sabanto – nour 25 in a 30 hour shift.
As Dave Geil watched his AGCO Challenger haul a disc at high speed over a recently harvested field of driverless corn in mid-November, a few thoughts crossed his mind.
First, he realized that embracing autonomous technology would help him achieve his goal of making the family farm, based in Harvard, Illinois, more efficient and sustainable. “We are trying to grow on our own because labor is a huge issue. I am convinced that this is a viable solution,” he said.
Second, Geils was relieved that the police did not show up.
Sabanto, a Chicago-based robotic agriculture company, outfitted Geils’ tractor with its autonomous technology. Craig Ruppfounder and CEO of the company, said law enforcement has responded to fields in which its driverless tractors have worked three times since the company began offering autonomous custom farming services to farmers in 2019.
“People are calling 911 thinking the farmer fell off the tractor not knowing what’s going on,” Rupp said. “When the police arrived they realized someone was there with a computer watching him.”
Sabanto’s autonomous fleet consists of four 60-hp Kubota tractors and four 90-hp Kubota tractors along with various implements that it hires out to perform a myriad of farm jobs, from planting and tillage to cultivation and mowing.
If people were worried about small driverless tractors, imagine what a passer-by would think if they saw Geils’ big 160-hp Challenger working on its own. Or a 4WD monster machine with four times the power running in a field with no one behind the wheel.
Police calls about driverless tractors may still occur occasionally, at least until the technology becomes more mainstream as Sabanto expands its business model. The agriculture-as-a-service company will soon install its autonomous technology in tractors owned by farmers, regardless of size or brand. Sabanto will also train farmers or farm workers to operate autonomous equipment remotely.
Geils Farms is the first row crop operation to work with Sabanto in its new venture. The company, with the help of Geils, is working to perfect the transition from working only with its own equipment to farmer-owned machines and helping non-employees operate them.
Sabanto helped Geils Farms fix system bugs and fix some technology issues when tillage began in the fall. By mid-November, Geils Farms was able to self-cultivate a 120-acre field nonstop, without help from the company.
Geils said learning how to create and upload path plans to the tractor’s computer and how to operate and monitor it wasn’t as difficult as expected given the amount of technology already in the equipment. agricultural. He added that Sabanto’s software was not the problem; instead, it was the quirks with the tractor. Every issue has been addressed, giving Geils confidence in the future of autonomous operations.
“As we figure it all out, we’ll move on to more stuff,” Geils said. “My goal is for this machine (Autonomous Challenger) to also plant soybeans and winter wheat.”
Rupp is confident that Sabanto will begin expanding installations of its technology into farmer-owned tractors in 2022.
“There’s a large population of farmers like Dave who want to be on the cutting edge of agriculture,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sabanto’s Kubota fleet covers more acres every year. The company first worked hundreds of acres with one or two autonomous tractors in the same field. In 2021, thousands of acres have been contracted with farmers. Sometimes six tractors worked simultaneously in several fields.
Sabanto was hired to do all the fieldwork on a 1,000 acre organic farm and a 750 acre conventional farm in 2021. Harvesting was the only thing not done independently.
“I’m inundated with calls every day from people who want to self-cultivate their land or me to automate their tractor,” Rupp said.
Sabanto bases its Custom Farm Rates on the Iowa State University Extension Farm’s annual Custom Rate Survey. The average planting rate in 2021 ranged from $20.66 to $24.55 per acre, depending on planter equipment and technology. Vertical tillage cost an average of $18.45 per acre.
Rupp said customers who want Sabanto’s autonomous hardware and technology installed in their tractor(s) will lease the equipment. An annual fee has not been determined, he added.
A PROBLEM SOLVER
Working the land with self-contained equipment, Geils explained, solves a host of problems he and other farmers face. Labor shortages top the list.
Geils Farms is a row crop operation totaling nearly 20,000 acres in Illinois and Wisconsin. The farm, which has 15 full-time employees, is about 70 miles from Chicago and much closer to its suburbs. Keeping a full squad isn’t always easy.
“There’s a lot of competition for construction and manufacturing workers, so I have to pay more for labor than the farms in central Illinois – probably 30-40% more,” said Geils said.
Autonomous technology allows him or an employee to operate a combine or move grain from a combine to a tractor-trailer while monitoring an unmanned tractor pulling a work tool from the floor from his smartphone. This helps alleviate labor worries and increases efficiency since multiple farm tasks can be done with the same or fewer people.
Geils said more acres can be covered in a day using autonomous equipment because, unlike humans, machines don’t need a break. In the future, it could use smaller, cheaper equipment to do the same amount of work that its larger equipment does now. This can solve another worry of making sure the farm stays financially sound so it can pass it on to its children and future generations.
“I can see multiple self-driving tractors in my future,” Geils said. “It’s about reducing the cost of production…and (increasing) the bottom line.”
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Matthew Wilde can be contacted at [email protected]
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