The Future of Autonomous Equipment w/ Craig Rupp

Interview with Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto

Show Notes

What is the future of autonomy in agriculture? Craig Rupp of Sabanto breaks down his vision for autonomous technology, from the adoption rate of autonomous equipment to the completion of certain field operations. Craig also predicts how autonomous tractors will operate in the future.

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.

A Vision for Autonomous Equipment

TOM: Craig, I want to talk to you a little bit today about your vision for autonomous equipment out in the field, especially as it relates to organic farming. I know you’ve really started working with tractors. Other companies have started with other equipment, but give us your vision. If an organic farmer was going to start looking at autonomous equipment, what’s your vision for that?

CRAIG: I still contend that the tractor is going to be autonomous, and what I mean by that, the autonomous machine of the future will still look like a conventional tractor for a number of reasons. Number one, even though you do field operations with it, it turns out the tractor is like the Swiss Army knife in agriculture, and it has some really unique things. A three-point hitch has some great hydraulics. It has a PTO shaft. It’s capable of pulling rather large loads. And I see that as a power unit for autonomy in the future. And even though I’m knee-deep in autonomy in agriculture, I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. And what I mean by that is there still will be requirements to manually drive or move the tractor. And I think of it like auto-steer systems on tractors. Nobody uses auto-steer if they want to move the tractor from the machine shed to the fuel tank. And it’s like cruise control. Nobody runs cruise control on their car 100 percent of the time. There are certain situations where you do not do that. And again, I’ll go back. It’s just the tractor. People are pushing snow with them when they’re not planting.

TOM: In your mind, your equipment’s always going to have a steering wheel on a tractor seat, right? We see this autonomous equipment that there’s no place for a person to even sit on it. That’s not necessarily your short and medium-term vision, then?

CRAIG: My short and long-term vision is still a seat and a steering wheel. If you have ever deployed one, there are times when I don’t want to pull out my phone. I don’t want to pull out my computer. I just want to drive it off of a trailer. I want to drive it down the road to the next field. I think a steering wheel and a seat will still remain.

Using Autonomy for Certain Field Operations

TOM: That’s interesting. As you’ve worked, what are some of the near-term things that you think are most applicable? What field operations make the most sense to you in an autonomous operation?

CRAIG: For us, we did start with planting, and we started with planting for a number of reasons. Number one, it was the winter, and the next field operation that we saw coming was planting. Second, planting is a little bit more difficult than tillage or cultivating. So we focused on that, just to do the hardest first. It’s limited. It really depends upon the limitation. So I think tillage will probably start because it’s a fairly mundane task that doesn’t take a lot of control and monitoring. I think there are, especially in the organic world, I see, perhaps, weeding like cultivating and tine-weeding and rotary-hoeing. Those are fairly mundane tasks. They take quite a lot of control, but I think that’s going to follow it.

Running Autonomous Equipment for 24 Hours

TOM: So some of the more mundane tasks are what you’re starting with, but where do you see this going? We hear about things like tractors operating 24 hours a day, but somebody’s still got to fill the fuel tank and fill the planter and everything. How does that work, Craig?

CRAIG: So we ran multiple systems 48 hours in Nebraska last spring. We had enough fuel. We can run about 20 hours between fueling, but I think it’s good hygiene to go out and visit it every 12 hours. We deployed it at seven o’clock at night. Then, at seven o’clock the next day, we did an equipment check, refueled it, and then we ran it another 12 hours. Then we stopped it, added fuel, checked and just did an equipment check, as well. I think the goal is to run them 24 hours, but I think that it’s probably a good idea to check them every 12 hours to make sure everything looks good. 

Adding Sensors to Autonomous Equipment

TOM: So, like on a cultivator, where you can hit a rock and trip a shovel or something like that, do you have sensors for all that? Or do you just say we’ll catch it at the 12-hour shift?

CRAIG: No, we’re building and creating sensors for all the equipment to help us detect that.

TOM: Yeah because there must be things that, as an operator, when you’re sitting on the tractor, you can see immediately, jump off, fix it. But if you’re not on the tractor, there are probably some extra things that you’re going to need.

CRAIG: We’re working with the Air Force, and they have some interesting requirements. We’re actually crossing a runway, and before we cross the runway, we have to come up to the runway. We have to notify the tower literally to allow us to cross that. When we come up to it, it’s a Batwing mower. We have to raise the wings on the Batwing mower, and we have to make sure they are indeed folded in order to cross. So we actually put sensors on the mower to tell us as to what the angle of the Batwing sensors are. 

Adoption Rate of Autonomous Equipment

TOM: In the last minutes here, what’s your vision for how fast autonomous field equipment is going to hit the market and will be adopted? As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to think about that, right? How fast are people going to adopt this? How fast can we get it out? What are your thoughts there?

CRAIG: I think it’ll follow the adoption of GPS. When GPS receivers came out, I think within five years, everyone had one. And I think autonomy will follow the same trajectory.

TOM: So you think it could come pretty quickly?

CRAIG: I think it’s going to come extremely quickly. There’s a labor problem out there. Every day, I meet farmers, talk with them. And the very first thing that comes out of their mouth is labor. I can’t find people. My people are retiring. They’re too old. They can’t do any field operations anymore. And I think it’s coming faster than anyone thinks.

TOM: It would also seem to me, for fast adoption, having smaller equipment that’s less expensive, right? I can invest a smaller amount of money, get an autonomous tractor that’s, like you said, 50 to 90 horsepower. And I can put it on a cultivator and send it out and see how it works instead of investing in a huge tractor or equipment. Is that a little bit of your strategy?

CRAIG: Absolutely. We’re getting inundated with these operations that want to introduce autonomy into their system, and they like that it’s really a low CapEx way of getting in.

TOM: Well, Craig, thanks again for this segment. I appreciate you being on, Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto.

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