Scaling Autonomous Equipment w/ Craig Rupp

Interview with Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto

Show Notes

Is autonomy in agriculture an all-or-nothing proposition? Craig Rupp of Sabanto explains how autonomous equipment can be implemented alongside manual operations. Craig also describes the best use of autonomy for both small and large-scale organic farmers.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com 

Learn more about Sabanto: www.sabantoag.com 

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn


Podcast Transcription

INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower, where we hear from top experts in the commercial organic industry. With a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field, you will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. Here’s our host, Tom Buman.

TOM: Today, we have with us Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto. Craig, thanks for joining us today.

CRAIG: Thank you, Tom, for having me.

Scaling Autonomous Equipment

TOM: Yeah, Craig, I wanted to talk to you a little bit today about scaling autonomous equipment. We still have small-scale farmers, especially in organic agriculture. We are starting to get some large-scale farmers. Where do you see autonomous equipment fitting into the scale of farming operations?

CRAIG: When we started, we went to smaller equipment with the intent that we were going to deploy a swarm. It’s not going to be just one large, extremely large piece of equipment in the field. We had the vision of going to smaller equipment, and it all came down to most fields with the farmers that we work with are about 160 acres in size. And we looked at it like what would it take for us to deploy something at, say, seven in the morning, show up at seven the next day, and the entire field has been covered? So that’s where we went, to the 60 and 90 horsepower. Then we thought a little bit further into that. If we encounter larger fields, or say we needed this field operation to be done in 12 hours, then what you could potentially do is put two smaller systems’ lower cost in there instead of one massive system that would be done in four hours.

TOM: So, with the smart equipment, you can scale for small-scale farmers, large-scale farmers, and it’s just a matter of the swarm size, right? How many tractors? Is it more than one tractor that you’re going to put in the field to get the task done?

CRAIG: Correct.

TOM: So, if I see a rainstorm coming, and I have 18 hours to get there, I can calculate how many tractors I need in my field to finish this field up, right?

CRAIG: Absolutely. So, then, you can dynamically assign machines to a field to perform a field operation.

Autonomy Is Not an All-or-Nothing Proposition

TOM: What did you learn in the last few years that really surprised you about autonomous equipment, the marketplace, what you can do, what you can’t do, what organic farmers are looking for? What were the surprises? What are the watchouts that you have?

CRAIG: There have been a number of things. I’ll start with autonomy is not an all-or-nothing proposition, meaning that there are certain field locations in fields that are best done manually. There are all these constraints, and certain portions of the field are better left done manually. That’s one thing we learned. The second thing we learned is by using smaller equipment, it is harder to get in trouble, if you will. I’ll give an example. A 60-horsepower tractor, if a row plugs, it just doesn’t have the power to overcome it. You’re not going to break anything. And I guess the third thing we learned is if you want to run considerable hours, you have to make sure you have enough acres in front of the machine. The one example I give is we were cultivating on the order of six, seven acres per hour. So, if you want to run it overnight, say seven at night to seven in the morning, you have to have 72 acres in front of it. There’s a lot of planning in that. Logistically, how many acres do I have left? When am I going to deploy it? And when will this be completed? So there are a lot of logistics that go into all this deploying of autonomous systems.

Sharing Autonomous Equipment

TOM: It seems to me it would make it easier to, then, also trade equipment between neighbors too, right? If I’m running behind and my neighbor’s done, it seems to me like it would be easier to borrow equipment because I don’t have to have his son or his operator run it. All I have to do is program it, and I can get my farm planted before the big rainstorm.

CRAIG: Absolutely. That’s interesting. That’s something that I never thought of. You could very easily use the equipment and share it amongst farmers. Initially, this grandiose vision is that we start in the south on the tip of Texas down by Galveston, and we move north. And these systems perform field operations from all the way south to north over the planting season. Some wild ideas floated around.

Understanding Farmer Constraints

TOM: When you hear claims of autonomous equipment, what makes you laugh, being in the business? What are some of the things you think, Wow, I heard this, and it’s crazy. I can’t see that happening.’

CRAIG: I see a lot of companies that are attempting to deploy autonomous and perform very, very specific field operations. I’m not going to call out names. I think they need to take a field trip and work a little bit closer with farmers to just understand, as to the limitations that farmers have in terms of timing and just the pressure they’re under, either getting their crops in the ground or seed in the ground or going out and weed control. I see a lot of people working on some technology, and I don’t think they’ve done enough interfacing with farmers, just to understand some of the constraints that they have.

TOM: So there’ll be successes and failures.

CRAIG: There will, most certainly will.

TOM: Craig, good to talk to you. Craig Rupp, Sabanto CEO working on equipment automation, it’s been fun talking to you, and we look forward to another discussion in a year or so.

OUTROThank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.