By STAN MADDUX
RENSSELAER, Ind. — An Indiana farmer is hoping to speed up the clock on service industry robots being a normal part of a hard day’s work in the field.
Kyler Laird is gearing up for a spring of planting soybeans from Texas to Canada with a driverless tractor. The mission is attracting investors to improve and mainstream technology in automated tractors like the self-driving ones he developed and uses already on his farm.
He feels the timing is right to start blazing a trail to what he believes can mean a significant cost savings. “We’re looking at it as farming is a service,” he explained.
Laird, 49, has already shown what he can do with the five robot tractors he converted himself, including his late grandfather’s Massey Ferguson. He planted 600 acres of corn this year and more than 500 acres in 2017 on his farm outside Rensselaer, between Gary and Lafayette, with his driverless machines.
Now, he’s getting ready to plant 10,000 acres of soybeans with a self-driving tractor pulling an 18-row planter. He plans to start in Texas sometime in February and haul his automated farm equipment on a semi to other locations for planting further north in April and May.
Laird said he can simply just take a break in the cab of his truck or do other chores on the farm while his small fleet of tractors are out planting. ‘’I think people are seeing all of these things we’ve been hearing about in the future are really possible now. They’ve been possible for a while. We just want to start doing it,’’ he said.
He worked for the Purdue University School of Engineering for 10 years after earning a degree in computer science at the West Lafayette campus. He also holds a master’s degree in ag systems management.
Laird was a systems analyst for 13 years at the University of California before he returned to the family farm in 2010 after his father, Wally, passed away. It wasn’t long before he decided to focus less on agronomy and more on what he believes was his true calling, automation.
He spent five years learning how standard machinery operated before retrofitting his lawn tractor with automated parts. He moved up by making his farm tractors run by themselves, or autonomously.
Laird said his first 50 acres of automated planting were done with a tractor equipped with a ride height sensor, GPS receiver and other recently-seen-as-futuristic components. His skills were sharp enough to take home a $25,000 first-place prize from the 2017 agBOT NextGen Expo seeding competition in Rockville, Ind.
Laird said his dive into automation has not gone without problems, though. In 2017, he was combining when his automated grain cart tractor went too far into a neighbor’s yard. However, he said his machinery is much improved and, overall, does an excellent job.
He and his business partner, Craig Rupp, are co-founders of Sabanto, Inc. They met at the agBOT competition and decided to start the fledging company, working toward being a provider of automated farming services.
Rupp already had a track record of success as co-founder of 640 Labs, which sold devices that plugged into farm equipment to automatically collect data that farmers recorded and analyzed on a cloud-based dashboard. The company was later sold to The Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based division of Monsanto.
Laird said the reason for the 2019 demonstration is to find out what his machinery is fully capable of, and to draw interest from investors he and Rupp can partner with to advance the technology into a common tool farmers can use to reduce operating costs.
He said the vision is for automation to become a major cost-saver by doing work for less than it costs a farmer to buy and maintain expensive standard machinery to perform the same tasks. Farmers could then focus on other chores not being done by automated equipment, and hire fewer people.
Laird feels the timing is right to develop service industries for agriculture, given the farm economy’s continued struggles. His vision is not so much farmers purchasing and using their own automated equipment; it’s more along the lines of specialists with Stanley Steemer going to the homes of customers to shampoo their carpets.
“When they walk in the door, they get right to work. They’re not sitting on the floor reading the instructions,” he said. “Farmers have to be good at so many things that it’s hard for them to be experts in something like planting with an automated platform, so it might be one of those things that’s better left to someone who is only doing that.”
Kinze Manufacturing in Williamsport, Iowa, has already developed autonomous equipment and proven it effective for planting, harvesting and other farm-related chores, said Phil Jennings, a service manager with the company.
Jennings said the work has focused mostly on driverless grain carts running beside human-operated combines, then after filling up, pulling away from the combine and delivering the corn and soybeans to a truck for loading. He said the same technology can be adapted to other machinery for driverless tillage, planting and other fieldwork.
The driverless technology is not available yet commercially because demand won't be sufficient until it becomes more socially acceptable in the agriculture world, said Jennings.
He also said no price point has been established for the technology, but if it is going to be available for purchase the struggling farm economy must improve for enough food producers to want to make such capital investments.
"Is the public ready for driverless cars? I think some of those types of things come into play. The technology is proven, but we also have to be in the right place from a market standpoint to make it realistic," Jennings said.