A picture of what the autonomous farming future will look like and the unseen data connecting it.
Many technologies enabling the future of autonomous farming already are available or are just coming to market and the perpetual challenges facing the industry demand that agriculture must become even more efficient and sustainable.
When growers enabled by technology are finally controlling machines and entire enterprises remotely, it will be a reality made possible by the role data is having in the rapidly changing agtech landscape.
Historically, farmers have always adopted new agriculture technology to overcome the complex and unique obstacles hindering production. But today’s growers are facing an onslaught of challenges not known by their predecessors, such as climate change, economic and transportation disruptions, trade disputes, depleting freshwater reserves, population growth, soil exhaustion, and increasing energy costs.
On top of contemporary issues demanding that farmers allocate their resources more efficiently, the Saskatchewan government has set a target to grow the province’s agri-food exports to $20 billion by 2030.
But present technologies enabling farmers to control machines and entire enterprises remotely and more productively to address these pressures and demands are inherently reliant on data, which is a defining aspect of the rapidly changing agtech landscape.
When people think about autonomous agriculture the image that comes to mind might be DOT Power Platform and its U-shaped frame coupling to interchangeable implements to complete farm tasks autonomously.
Convincing as that image of a driverless tractor is, the future of autonomous agriculture will bear more resemblance to the ecosystem found at Olds College’s Smart Farm in Olds, Alta. with its 2,000 acres of interconnected commercial-scale agriculture operations being used for applied research.
Although they do have a DOT Power Platform, the Smart Farm is a “Living Lab” launched in 2018 and its research in agri-food development also includes working with data technologies, precision agriculture, soil and weather sensors, and regenerative practices to accelerate agriculture technology development.
“The sky’s the limit,” says associate vice-president, applied research at Olds College Dr. Joy Agnew.
“When I think about how some of these different technologies and tools will be able to interact, say ten years from now to truly automate the entire process, it’s mind blowing.”
To Agnew, automation includes driverless robots in the field, but her broad definition includes the automated collection of information through sensors and tools, and additionally the software synthesizing all that data to inform management decisions as well.
“In order to meet the growing demand for food production with fewer resources and to be more cautious about long term sustainability these types of solutions have to be successful,” Agnew says.
“Farmers are savvy businesspeople and stewards of the environment so they will only adopt technologies that work for them from an economic, environmental, and productivity standpoint.”
That is why the applied research Olds College does in collaboration with industry and sector partners is so valuable. By offering this giant lab and commercial farm, Agnew says the school is providing a valuable space for technological hurdles to be overcome. The research done in collaboration with industry partners is a critical step in the commercialization of autonomous tools and subsequently their future adoption.
“Without the ability to validate, test and troubleshoot [manufacturers] don’t know how their tool is going to interact in a real working environment.”
The DOT Autonomous Platform at the Smart Farm is being tested in partnership with Raven Industries Inc. which acquired full-ownership of the Saskatchewan-based DOT Technology Corp. in March 2020. In addition to investing in this leading autonomous platform, Raven opened a new Canadian headquarters dedicated to manufacturing and testing just outside of Regina last November.
Ben Voss joined Raven’s applied technologies division when the company expanded its strategic growth initiative in Canada last fall, and he is currently the director of sales for North America and Australia. He came aboard because he believes that Raven is making a major impact in agriculture by bringing autonomy to the market and investing in Saskatchewan.
“I’ve always been a strong patriot of Saskatchewan to see that things happen here and ensure we play a real role in global agriculture,” Voss says.
“When a company acquires a technology there’s always a fear that they will move it out of the province, but I think the fact that Raven has made a commitment to the Saskatchewan facility, the people, and manufacturing, that’s why everyone should be excited.”
Voss gathered twenty years of agribusiness leadership experience before filling this new position, so the possibility of autonomy seemed believable to someone like him. He witnessed the dramatic digitization that has already been evolving agriculture for the past three decades.
“Obviously, the technology is capable of doing it, so the advancements we’re seeing now with autonomy are very practical and it makes sense economically.”
From this perspective Voss believes that autonomy is going to be agriculture’s latest advancement rather than a brand-new paradigm. Regardless, he knows there is “no silver bullet solution” because the practical applications of this technology are going to be different for every farm.
Where Voss sees the actual revolution taking place is in autonomy is becoming commercially viable like never before. Indeed, in addition to the DOT Power Platform Raven is bringing more autonomy to the marketplace by its rollout of AutoCart, the world’s first system allowing for driverless harvest operations this year.
“The application of autonomous technology to specific farming tasks enables people to really see it in-action and not just as a big experiment,” Voss says. “It’s about enabling multiple scenarios to unfold at once because a corn grower is going to need different tools than a canola farmer.”
While Agnew and Voss each fill distinct roles in the lengthy process of developing and commercializing ag tech so operations can begin functioning autonomously, they both agree that it is a misconception when we only visualize the driverless machines in front of us instead of appreciating all the data behind the curtain powering these advancements.
If farms are going to be run remotely and for autonomy to occur, the new system is going to directly depend on communications infrastructure, data management, and computer software. For these reasons, Olds College is currently researching the low-power wide-area internet cloud technologies that would be ideal for connecting and integrating the entire farm.
A key partner in answering the interconnected farm’s call for an effectively established network is TELUS Agriculture, a business created last year which is composed of global-leading innovators working to digitally transform the global food system.
One of the eight companies that joined TELUS Ag was the California agriculture software and technology company Agrian. Established in 2004 and among the first to recognize that the digitizing agriculture industry needed a unified software solution, CEO and founder Nish Majarian says Agrian’s agronomy, analytic, and precision farming platform will be invaluable as operations become automated.
“A problem that [farmers] are having today is with fragmented workflows and data, because you’ve got a combination of different software packages so you’ve got this really mixed-up ecosystem that’s so fragmented you couldn’t even bring autonomy into it,” Majarian says.
What Agrian has always done and intends to continue with TELUS Ag, is to provide a platform that unifies all the data being collected by a farm’s various equipment before streamlining that vital information for its users.
With already over tens of thousands of users from each segment of the food supply chain using Agrian’s cloud-based software, Majarian explains that commercial agriculture already depends on integrated datasets and platforms like this will be essential in a future where more autonomous machines are added to farms and further simplify workflows.
“I think one of the challenges is that you have a lot of software out in ag today … now that seems like it’s hard but it’s actually easier because more growers and the agronomists, retailers and others supporting them are looking for an independent provider of technology and enabler of capabilities,” Majarian says.
“And that’s where Agrian and TELUS Ag come in because we are providing the industry’s first and broadest platform.”
Regardless of when it happens, the inevitable transition to an ever-more autonomous future will impact every aspect of food production. As leading-edge technologies are researched and new products enter the market, farmers are gaining more access to innovative autonomous solutions and the data that comes along with it.
130 Goals for 2030, Government of Saskatchewan, saskatchewan.ca/government/budget-planning-and-reporting/plan-for-growth/30-goals-for-2030