Cover Story

Autonomous Farming Reaches Infinite Horizons: SeedMaster Manufacturing Inc.

Photo: David Carter Photography

“Elon Musk hasn’t returned my emails yet for some reason,” jokes Cory Beaujot. Beaujot is the marketing & communications manager for Saskatchewan’s SeedMaster Manufacturing Inc.

As a local manufacturing company and industry innovator, SeedMaster has been developing patented technologies in Saskatchewan for over fifteen years, with the roots of the company stretching back to the early nineties.

SeedMaster Manufacturing Inc

Cory Beaujot is part of the fourth generation Saskatchewan farming family that set out in 1991 to find a better way to deal with the unique combination of conditions found here. Extreme temperatures, high winds, short growing seasons and low levels of precipitation lead founders (and brothers) Norbert and Pat Beaujot to explore ways to help farmers grow better crops more profitably. The core concerns of their own farming needs set the foundation for their products: a line of equipment developed to provide technological solutions that let farmers make better use of their time, money, and resources. The brothers started a company called Seed Hawk – which led to the establishment some years later of SeedMaster.

While Seed Hawk was purchased by Swedish company, Vaderstad in 2013, SeedMaster has evolved along a different path over the last fifteen years. They first expanded their markets across Western Canada and the United States and are now looking to Australia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Siberia and Germany. These markets are perfect for a Saskatchewan based company, with extreme temperatures, short growing seasons, vast spaces and low precipitation. Just as importantly these markets embrace change—and SeedMaster is leading the way in agricultural innovation.

“The size of farms has grown significantly, while the number of farmers has fallen,” says Beaujot, “So, we look to address the labour shortage and with the SeedMaster line we knew we needed to go bigger.”

How much bigger?

Since they opened their first manufacturing plant outside of Regina in 2002, they’ve been expanding the size of the machinery they produce—releasing North America’s first 100-foot seeding system in 2012. Manufacturing gigantic mechanical beasts and developing the software to have them rumbling across vast swaths of prairie doing the work of several smaller machines gave SeedMaster a foothold in the industry and allowed them to continue exploring the marriage of computer technology and agricultural machinery. Custom built web applications combining with GPS guidance and patented metering technology allowed SeedMaster machinery to put seeds in the ground with precision, speed and reliability.

“We wanted to provide the highest level of technology that most farmers would employ,” Beaujot explains. With standard machinery gaining complexity and the technology embedded within them evolving, the new generation of farmers have become very comfortable using the information and technology available.

We’re not talking about air conditioning or Angry Birds in the cab of a combine here, either.

SeedMaster made their mark by making bigger machines to cover more ground and developing technology to make those bigger machines more efficient. Monitors, sensors and complex data gathering/interpretation mean that farmers are placing seeds and fertilizer with surgical precision. Adjusting for wind conditions, soil conditions, temperature and obstacles—things that farmers have always done by instinct and hard-won experience—are now being controlled by technology. With the latest advances, the possibilities for improvements seem limited only by the creativity of the manufacturers.

“My father is a very creative guy,” Beaujot continues. “About three years ago, the plans began for DOT. It’s a bit of a retirement project of his.” DOT Technology Corp has given us the DOT autonomous power platform. Here’s where the Elon Musk reference starts to make sense. DOT is an automated platform that connects with a variety of tools to take farming to the next logical step. This is the base for a self driving farm tool, an autonomous agricultural vehicle that is going to do to tractors what the tractor did to horses at the dawn of the 1900s.1

Since the early days of powered machines, farm equipment has suffered from a similar constraint to the “Rocket Equation.”2 To be strong enough and heavy enough to pull large machinery, the driving equipment must itself be heavy enough to provide traction.  As the machinery being pulled got larger, the fuel efficiency involved in pulling it got worse.

Enter DOT.

Photo: David Carter Photography

DOT drives itself. It is a precision, driverless machine with the ability to monitor and adjust its path. It’s a Tesla for farmers. While it is not electric (Elon, pick up the phone!), it does operate with a huge savings in fuel consumption.

“The farmer marks his field with a drone, or by driving the field on a quad or in a truck, and setting markers to identify obstacles,” Beaujot explains. “It is very, very safe. DOT is loaded with sensors and will stop and alert the controller if its sensors or cameras pick up something in its path, and it awaits further instructions. The operator can ‘see’ what it sees and make the decision to continue.” In this manner, the DOT seems safer than a human operator with a series of 18-hour days under their belt.

“We’re looking to supply the platform for other manufacturers to become DOT ready,” Cory continues, “Sprayers, seeders, rollers. These are expensive machines for time consuming tasks. Manure spreading is a sh*tty job for farmers,” he jokes, “DOT can do these jobs for them.”

Moving to smaller, lighter machines may seem like a strange step for the folks at SeedMaster. However, the nimbler, autonomous machine can actually scale up to cover the same amount of ground—if it needed to. Being able to operate autonomously removes the danger of fatigued farmers operating heavy machinery. DOT will partner up with other DOT platforms to function as a single unit. Five twelve-foot-wide machines can operate as a single 60-foot boom, covering a lot of ground and “communicating” to one another to maximize efficiency. Eventually, the machines will even be able to drive from one field to the next—though that technology is outpacing legislation in that regard.

Are Canadian farmers ready for self-driving tractors?

“The amount of change within Western Canada—even in the last fifteen years—has prepared people for change,” says Beaujot. There certainly seems to be a global appetite. “STEP (Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership) does an amazing job of making Saskatchewan manufacturers look great on the global stage,” Beaujot says, referring to SeedMaster’s recent trip to Agritechnica, a gigantic machinery trade show held in Germany in 2017. SeedMaster was in attendance and made connections around the world.

“The Australian farmers love the Canadian product. I think it’s that desire for things that last, and last, and last—combined with a low appetite for designed failures. The Australians are like Canadian farmers that way. They’re used to taking care of themselves.”

The self-sufficient attitude resonates clearly with the farming roots of the Beaujot family. Hailing from southeast Saskatchewan, their operation in Langbank became the first Saskatchewan farm to “employ” DOT—which hit the fields in 2017. More machines will follow but the folks at SeedMaster aren’t rushing ahead.

“We’re focused on getting it right,” says Beaujot. To that end, they needed top talent. But where to find it? The company added to their talented team by hiring the 2016 winners of the AgBot challenge in Indiana, brothers Joshua and Caleb Friedrick.3 “They took first place—and they’re from the University of Regina,” he explains. In addition, they have recently acquired Thomas Chadwick, who returns to Regina following a stint in Southern California. Another award-winning software developer (2014 HACKRegina), Thomas had been working as a software engineer for a company in Redlands, California that specializes in map and GPS related technologies before joining the SeedMaster team.

SeedMaster is a local company and is happy to access local talent to get the job done. “When we started, a lot of it was about addressing human resources—getting more done with less people. But now, we’ve had a lot of conversations with people about the growing need to feed the world. There’s a looming problem (with population growth) and autonomous farming will be a very important part of the solution,” says Beaujot.

Automation. Reducing fossil fuel emissions. Solving a looming global hunger crisis. It might be time for SeedMaster to pester Elon again.

References

1https://www.farmcollector.com/company-history/tractor-history-ze0z1205zsie

2https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition30/tryanny.html

3http://www.agbot.ag/seeding-competition-2017-2/