A little over a week and a half ago, the 2019 Commodity Classic took over the sprawling Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, for the annual celebration of American farmers and the ag industry at-large.
We spent a couple days in the Sunshine State talking with some of our precision ag industry friends and colleagues. Have a look below at a few of the companies we visited with in Orlando:
Tim Norris heads up SmartAg driverless tractor kit launch for Eastern U.S., SmartAg recruiting farmer beta-testers for 2019 season
Longtime friend of PrecisionAg.com and the former owner of Central Ohio-based precision ag aftermarket technologies dealer AgInfoTech has a pretty cool new job, helping the Ames, IA-based driverless tractor startup SmartAg manage R&D efforts for the upcoming season, as well as the inevitable commercial launch of its AutoCart driverless grain cart kit. We linked up with Norris to see what he had to say about his new gig:
“So, ever since we had auto-steer I’ve been thinking, man it’s not going to be too much longer and we won’t have a driver,” Norris told me in Orlando. “Well, here we are almost 20 years later since I first started playing with and seeing auto steer until now, it’s kind of hard to believe, ain’t it? But, what I really didn’t think about and didn’t realize is, there are two main components that we didn’t have 20 years ago, but now we have them today. One is the implement being automated enough that you could be driverless, and when you look at Precision Planting and everything that is monitored on that planter, it’s almost to the point where it’s fully autonomous. It’s setting depth on its own, it’s changing the seeding rate on its own based on the organic matter it is sensing, and adjusting the speed and downforce, it is truly almost zero input from the operator now. That planter is just ripe for autonomy, and we didn’t have that 10-15-20 years ago.
MORE BY MATTHEW J. GRASSI
“The other thing we didn’t have were the safety features,” he continued. “To drive one safely, you can’t just use a GPS path, you’ve got to be able to detect what is out there. And the computing power and artificial intelligence is to the point where machines can see things and recognize obstacles and actually control the tractor, and we have the wireless connectivity with the cloud that we also didn’t have 20 years ago. There’s just so many things in place now that we couldn’t really do the autonomy without it. ”
I asked Norris to perhaps expound on the safety piece as it pertains to the company’s much-anticipated AutoCart driverless grain cart automation kit, as safety always seems to be the first concern brought up by those skeptical of driverless technology:
“They talk about ‘Well, what is the safety going to be like?’ And I answer, our vision system is actually scanning the area twenty times a second, and its trying to look for people,” Norris obliged. “Then, I think about ‘Well, how many times when I’m in my grain cart am I actually looking ahead to see what’s in front of me?’ We’re going to have an interface in there that the operator will actually be able to see what the machine is seeing, see what it is tagging, but it is really interesting to see that because it tags every person and vehicle, and it knows where they are and whether they are headed towards or away from you, and its constantly thinking about whether to shut the system down or not. Then I think about a lot of the people I’ve seen in the grain cart – usually its either the oldest or the youngest person on the farm – I know this is going to be safer.”
As far as the 2019 effort to recruit farmer beta testers for AutoCart, Norris says the outfit is looking for a certain type of farmer.
“Basically, our goal for 2019 is we’d like to get about 10-12 systems out, and we really want to get a few good growers that are going to be willing to promote the autonomous industry, and then obviously allow us to get a lot of hours in on the machines, and we just want to be sure we’ve tested our machine in every possible situation, so we’re looking for some really diverse environments,” he shared.
The outfit known for its vast arsenal of DJI drone-integrated sensor suites, as well as its own fixed-wing for ag the Phoenix 2, Sentera (Minneapolis, MN) was promoting the SkyPort-compatible variant of its NDVI-Red Edge multispectral imaging sensor, the AGX710, which easily integrates with the DJI Matrice 200, at the show.
“You don’t have any wires poking out anymore, just pop it into the socket and you get full gimble control, you get live video coming back from the sensor,” Eric Taipale, Sentera CEO and Co-founder, said. “This year we’re also taking our stand count analytics and weed pressure mapping that we’ve done for the last couple years and those are going to come live down to the mobile device now. So as the drone flies it’s pushing back stand counts and weed maps and building those maps in real-time.”
Additionally, Sentera has beefed up the data link on its Phoenix 2 fixed-wing, offering a much longer range than the previous module.
“We had a ton of requests from our customers ‘Hey, get rid of the directional antenna and give me an omni-directional antenna so I don’t have to worry about configuration,” Taipale explained. “With the old data link if a user was out a mile, they would have to adjust the old communications box on the ground. That’s all gone, now it’s a long-range, military-grade data link in there so it pushes it out to a reasonable distance (within line-of-sight).”
Veris Technologies – the Kansas-based forefathers of EC Mapping in Ag – launch iScan+ soil sensing platform
Veris Technologies (Salina, KS), the company known primarily for its Electrical Conductivity (EC) mapping rigs, introduced iScan+ at the show. iScan+ reportedly uses sensor modules to give in-cab, real-time readings of four soil measurements: moisture, temperature, CEC, and Organic Matter (OM). The first iteration of iScan measured only two soil properties, according to company president Eric Lund.
“It’s designed to fit on tillage tools and planters, so it gives a lot of flexibility and a lot of information,” he said.
Lund says the rig will spit out data into four separate soil maps for each data layer, and there are also “data fusion” options where they can combine the layers for enhanced insight into soil conditions.
“Probably more importantly is, when you’re in the cab and collecting this data you see it in real-time, what the moisture and soil temperature are, and you see the maps in real-time so you can discover things like ‘the soil temperature on my south facing slopes are 58 degrees, and the temperatures on my north-facing slopes are 52 degrees,’ so then when you look at the maps you begin to see things spatially and start to understand what’s going on in that soil,” Lund said.
Lund says he could see three different avenues for iScan+ adoption in the U.S. market.
“One is with the retailer or input provider consultant – someone who is delivering services to the grower – could be a seed salesman, could be a fertilizer salesman, a cooperative, maybe a CCA – that’s who our main customer has been and will continue to be,” he explained. “But this also opens up the door to larger growers who may want to do some of this work themselves, because this soil moisture information will be more valuable to the grower as they are planting or tilling, than perhaps to most retailers.”
The third group Lund could see adopting iScan+ are the tillage tool and planter manufacturers, who could possibly “mount these on their tools, as well,” according to Lund.
BASF’s recently-acquired digital farming platform, xarvio, announces U.S. availability of Field Manager Spray Timer
We stopped by and had a brief visit with David Gray, Head of U.S. Commercial Operations – Global Digital Farming, for an update on xarvio and what to expect from the group in 2019:
“Our big news this week is the xarvio Field Manager Spray Timer, which is a platform with a web-based service and an app that will track disease pressure in a field and monitor the growth stage of the crop and then send alerts, for instance, it might tell you that disease pressure for Northern Corn Leaf Blight is increasing in your area and you’re almost at critical growth stage, and we estimate that in the next seven days you will reach a threshold where you should consider fungicide application,” Gray explained. “And then, based on the weather, here are the best two or three days coming up for spraying.
“We’ve had this product in Europe and now we’re introducing it in the U.S., we’re doing a limited launch and its available free of charge this year. We’ve got winter wheat and corn available this season, and we’re hoping to add some more crops like soybeans by next year.”
I asked Gray what data layers the Spray Timer analyzes to make its recommendations.
“Planting date, seed variety, tillage methods, and then last year’s crop – those things help determine the disease model,” he answered. “And then from there we track growth stage and then with the weather, also the disease pressure. Then, if you do make the decision to treat with fungicide, you can go in the app and mark off, for instance ‘treated with Priaxor’ and that will modify the disease pressure models since you’ve just treated.”
Raven Exec Talks recent AgSync Acquisition
Swung by the Raven booth and had a brief chat with Paul Welbig, director of Slingshot Services & Logistics, about the group’s recent AgSync acquisition:
“We have the Slingshot brand, and the Slingshot brand for Raven and our customers is the connectivity and data piece platform, so this fits squarely within that brand of more software solutions – these soft goods – if you will,” Welbig shared. “Based on a lot of feedback from our customers, like you said we spend a lot of time with our ag retailers, there’s this growing buzz word out there called ‘logistics’. And they tell us ‘We get the mapping, we get the prescriptions, and the file transfers have been great, but we really need more help in becoming more efficient with our assets and our capital expenditures, because there’s still a ton of unknowns in that logistics arena.’
“You’ve got all these different relationships to get this work done, we can streamline it and you can have full visibility, and at the end of the day you can keep all of that in one platform, one single point, and because its on Slingshot and all through AgSync, we also work in non-Raven color cabs, we have an iPad app and tablet capabilities, so you don’t even have to have our display.”
Ceres Imaging Talks Taking Aerial Imagery Beyond Post-Mortem NDVI, Getting Proactive
Jeff Divan, a Minnesota farmer and a Customer Success rep with Ceres, talked to us about the company’s approach to aerial imagery in ag and what sets it apart in a crowded space, as well as some details about the outfit’s newest product, Center Pivot Analytics.
“Our Center Pivot Analytics piece, it ties together a lot of our scientific and academic research we’ve doing for the last five years and it really pulls the layers together – along with our support – to really make it something unique in the industry,” Divan shared. “We’ve spent the last five six years, spending a ton of time on the scientific side of what the product is, and then tying that in with the agronomics piece. So whether its timing flights along with agronomic packages – corn, for example, through the progression of that field – and with this high-resolution, scientific grade imagery it provides a lot more insight than most of what’s out there today.”
Getting beyond the NDVI field scans stage of imagery was important for Ceres and its customers, according to Divan.
“We hear a lot about NDVI, or vegetation indexes, or the vigor of the plant,” he explained. “What we have the ability to do is a couple things within those Center Pivot Analytics: One is our chlorophyll layer that looks within the canopy at the nutrient level of the plants, and then the other piece is our core thermal. We can look plus or minus one degree temperature within that canopy, at a sub-meter level. That’s high level what we’re doing from an agronomic standpoint. In our opinion, NDVI has been very reactive, once you see it in the imagery a lot of times it’s really too late to do anything about it. We take a more proactive approach to imagery.”