Autonomous Planting Revs Up


SAC CITY, Iowa (DTN) — Three tractors and planters seeded more than 500 acres of soybeans at a northwest Iowa farm last week with no one at the wheel.

Sabanto, a Chicago-based robotic farming company, helped Bellcock Farms plant using remote-controlled utility tractors, each pulling five-row planters. Several other farmers in Iowa and Illinois have also hired the company to provide robotic planting help this year.

Autonomous farming has moved from the proof-of-concept stage to commercial reality for the company.

“This is the real deal … it will change agriculture,” said Sabanto co-owner Craig Rupp as he watched one driverless tractor plant while another passed nearby on the way to a seed tender to refill. “We’ve gone from one tractor and planter to multiple machines operating remotely at the same time.”

The company’s vision to solve agriculture’s labor shortage with autonomous technology is being realized, according to Rupp.

“This is still a work in progress; it’s hard to do,” he added. “However, I do believe this will be the solution to the lack of labor in [row-crop] agriculture.”

Justin Bellcock said his family is fortunate they currently have enough help for their row-crop, turkey and crop input businesses. However, he knows that may not always be the case.

That’s why the Bellcocks hired Sabanto to plant a portion of their soybean acres. Seeding soybeans and corn as soon as the ground is fit is crucial to maximize yield potential for both crops, Bellcock stated. The family uses two planters to seed each crop at the same time to improve the odds.

“Labor shortages in farming will only get worse,” Bellcock said. “There may be a day when we don’t have the help, so I want to see this technology succeed.”

Bellcock was impressed last year with Sabanto’s remote-operated 235 horsepower JCB Fastrac and 18-row Harvest International planter. The unit was capable of planting about 500 acres in 24 hours of continuous operation.

By today’s standards, the three 60 horsepower Kubota M5660SU tractors with five-row Harvest International planters traversing Bellcock’s fields weren’t an impressive display of power and size. But watching the driverless units work together, and the technology making it happen, blew the farmer away.

“This is the future of agriculture,” Bellcock claimed.

The three small units can plant almost the same amount of acres during a 24-hour period as the bigger tractor and planter last year. Rupp chose small implements this year because they’re light, cost effective, relatively simple to retrofit and easy to move.

“One big advantage to smaller equipment is less compaction,” Rupp said of the 7,000 pound units. “Logistically, we can get move them from point A to point B quickly.”

If the company wanted to use larger equipment again in the future, Rupp said the technology allows that to happen. “We decided to start small to perfect controlling multiple units.”

“Getting multiple units to run in a single field is a whole different ballgame from last year,” Rupp admitted. “Running multiple units in multiple fields (in multiple states) is another league, which is the ultimate goal.”

Matt Darr, a professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, said automation is part of the natural evolution of agriculture. Horses gave way to tractors, which became partially automated two decades ago with satellite guidance and auto steer.

Fully automated farm equipment will only become more popular out of necessity as equipment manufacturers and technology companies like Sabanto, John Deere, Raven Applied Technology and others perfect it, Darr asserted. Sabanto, though, is the only company at this time using autonomous equipment to custom farm for clients, according to Rupp and Darr.

Source: Progressive Farmer. Article by Matthew Wilde.

This article is the first realization of commercialized small, autonomous implements replacing large tractors. Agricultural implements have been designed for years to maximize the amount of work per time for one person operating one machine leading to larger and larger equipment. The future of agriculture provides the possibility for the management of multiple machines by one person, potentially without the need for continuous monitoring, allowing machinery to run round the clock. This will lead to the proliferation of smaller implements in larger quantities resulting in changes across the industry from implement ownership to new models of custom harvest/planting to potentially new models of land ownership as implements can be monitored remotely.