Technology May Help Fill In Agriculture Labor Gap
We’ve seen self-driving cars, remote-piloted drones, and advanced autopilot systems in planes. Now we’re about to see autonomously driven tractors, thanks to the bright minds at Raven Industries Inc. In collaboration with Fargo’s Titan Machinery, the Sioux Falls-based manufacturer has been making the rounds at trade shows and industrial expos to showcase its groundbreaking technology to excited farmers, ideally picking up investors along the way.
Raven’s success is largely thanks to its newly developed OMNiDRIVE technology. While autonomous driving is certainly a thing many farmers are yet to get used to, it can prove to be a significant advantage for an agricultural sector that has recently suffered from a lack of available workers. “It seems like this would be a suitable way to work by yourself in the field,” said 39-year-old Phil Faught, who grows a mix of corn, wheat, and soybeans on his North Dakota farm with his father, Mike.
“It’s really weird to see a tractor without an operator, but just finding labor to do those kind of jobs is becoming harder and harder. I can see this being on most fields — 10 years, for sure.”
Interested farmers certainly won’t get access to Raven’s technology for free — the initial setup costs roughly $50,000, with an additional $3,000 per year subscription fee for the continued OMNiDRIVE support. Proponents say that the price is small to pay for the massive benefits to time efficiency and output capacity once it’s put to the test in the fields.
It also means less need to find additional laborers, alleviating a pretty sizable financial burden. “What’s it worth to get something else done on the farm that person in the cab could be doing?” said Paul Bruns, Raven autonomy product sales specialist, on an expo stage this past year. “What’s the value of getting all your fall fertilizer in on time or your ditching done in the fall?” For most, that value far exceeds the costs, he says.
Bruns’ message was directed at individual farmers as much as at corporations. Privately owned farms between 1,000–4,000 acres could benefit as much as large businesses, specifically because of the dilemma over rationalizing additional hires. “It’s hard to justify one more full-time person on the farm, especially on a part-time basis, during the harvest season,” he says.
The setup, while straightforward, is an all-day process. After the grain cart is fitted with Raven’s technology, there are a few more hours of calibration. Users must first establish a fixed boundary for the system, which can either be drawn by hand or uploaded in more detail via a “shape file” if a given farm has that available. The next step is an identification of sections of the fields that are being harvested and, therefore, off-limits to prevent any accidental damage to fully-grown crops. Farmers must then identify any existing obstacles in the path of their machines, like boulders or trees.
OMNiDRIVE is the culmination of more than five years of research and development at Raven. The concept originated in the earlier days at Raven, in Ames, IA, in 2016.
The years of extensive testing followed, incorporating 14 additional systems before a brief stoppage due to the 2020 pandemic.
Now, Raven has committed contracts with dozens of farms throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota — more likely on the horizon. While the release is still somewhat limited, Bruns thinks of it as he would with the incorporation of any new technology — it starts slow until it suddenly isn’t. “We have to walk before we can run,” he said.