Disruptive Technologies are Nothing New In Agriculture - But What's Around the Corner?
Innovation and technology are common words in agriculture. We have experienced a multitude of both over the last decades and even centuries. From the replacement of the horse with tractors (a change that took 40 years for full adoption), to inorganic fertilizers, hybridization, GMOs, no-till, GPS and auto steer, precision ag, fancy and sophisticated farm equipment like self-propelled sprayers and combines equipped with advanced telematics - it's been quite the technology roller coaster! But the trend in technology advancement has not experienced the "scale" change that has happened in some other industries, like communication and entertainment. In innovation circles they speak of "disruptive technologies or change", where the change is so monumental as to fundamentally change and realign the industry.
A few years ago (2013) at the GFO March Classic, Cal Whewell, Risk Management Consultant at FC Stone in Bowling Green OH, gave one of his excellent, thought provoking and entertaining presentations. Whewell talked about "scale" and "disruptive change". We have had lots of disruptive change in agriculture, such as milking robots and auto steer, for example, but we have not really experienced too many examples of disruptive change that addressed "scale" until now.
Whewell used two example industries, the automotive and communication/entertainment sectors. In automotive he used the contrast between an original Model T Ford and his own personal ride at the time, the Pontiac Vibe. While obviously the Vibe had much more technology, essentially they were the same. Both had an engine, four tires, a gas and brake pedal, a windshield and could sit four people. He then made the point that over 90 years of innovation, both of these cars only got 32 mpg in fuel economy. Well that was a bit of a let down!
His other example given elegantly and comically by informing us that he was a "runner" is where the other concept of "scale" came into play. He pulled out of his pocket his latest and favourite Christmas present from his family; an Apple IPod Shuffle. This little device was all white and smaller than an old style matchbox.
The technology is part of a plethora of products that have profoundly changed the communication and entertainment industry forever. Similar to his automotive comparison, he talked about the iPod in relation to his grandparent's old phonograph that took up a whole wall of his grandparent's parlour in the old farm house. These two items did essentially the same thing, but now at a much different scale and with the little device having power and capability magnitudes greater than the behemoth in the parlour, plus it is fully portable! All of a sudden a device that you could hold half a dozen of in the palm of your hand was capable of doing way more than that big, bulky phonograph. The "scale" had changed along with the technology! This was a fundamental and monumental change. This change in scale may not be possible in the automotive industry. You still have to be able to fit people into their cars, so how small can they get? However, recent change in autonomous technology leading to driverless vehicles is the sort of disruptive change I am speaking about. I am going to miss driving my car, it is one of my most enjoyable hobbies!
In agriculture despite all the amazing technology that has come to bear on the industry we have not seen this disruption in scale. New tractors, planters, sprayers, tillage implements and others have been edging bigger over time, but not at an unreasonable pace - there just wasn't the "wow" factor. But we are now on the cusp of a scale and technology change like we have not seen before in the cropping sector. Last summer the DOT autonomous power unit (Figure 1) developed by a Saskatchewan farmer/inventor was introduced at the "Ag in Motion" event in Saskatchewan. This small unit was a platform that could be programmed to "grab" an assortment of implements, lock on, fill up and head to the field without human intervention to seed, fertilize, spray, or till a field. Game changer!
Figure 1. DOT/Seed Master 2018
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The second introduction was rolled out at the biannual Agritechnica show in Hamburg, Germany in November and is an even more profound example of scale change and disruptive technology. AGCO introduced the Fendt Xaver swarm technology mini robotic autonomous corn planter system (Figure 1). While Case IH introduced their vision of autonomous tractor technology (Figure 2) in 2016 to great fanfare, and which is an amazing feat of innovation, it did not change the scale. Xaver changes all that. Essentially you have a number of laundry basket sized wheeled robots running around the field doing their thing. Watch the YouTube videos and read the latest on this technology and think outside the box on the impact this will have on the way we crop.
Figure 2. Case IH Corporation autonomous tractor, 2016
The vision of the Xaver system is to have a trailer that is left at the edge of the field containing little programmed bots and a charging station. The system is controlled by cloud technology through a smartphone. It can carry out tasks in the field such as to load up with seed, go the field, plant the crop, tell the farmer where every single seed was planted via GPS, return for fill up when empty, return to the charging trailer when batteries get low, and communicate with each other so if one is disabled others come to take over. All this while the farmer works on other things or may even be a "million" miles away. I say again, "Game Changer"!
The other significant change that this swarm of bots brings to the equation is how the corn is planted. It would take a lot of energy for a battery powered system to put a continuous slice in the soil as it moves along planting. The Xaver essentially travels along and "pokes" the individual seeds into the ground. This may open up new possibilities. Farmers often site poor seed to soil contact, or depth control as reasons for not adopting no-till, but a platform like Xaver could essentially be equipped and programmed to create an optimized micro environment around each individual little seed it "pokes" into the soil. It could vary how it achieves this micro environment across the field giving optimal seeding conditions regardless of changes in soil type, slope, soil moisture etc. The other amazing thing is that because it has recorded the position of every individual seed that has been planted, the system can return throughout the season and tend to each plant for its nutrient and pest protection needs.
Figure 3. AGCO Fendt Corp 2018
Figure 4. AGCO Fendt Corp 2018
Check this out at the following list of videos and articles. I truly believe this is the start of a fundamental realignment of how we will crop farm. Scary and exciting all wrapped up in one little "swarming" package!
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