Sabanto tests driverless technology to plant soybeans in North America.

Sabanto autonomously planted soybeans near Sac City, Iowa, last month, Image by Matthew Wilde

Autonomous farming is inching closer to commercial reality.

Sabanto, a farming-as-a-service company performing row-crop operations using advanced autonomous equipment, has an ambitious goal of farming 10,000 acres this year to perfect its technology and equipment. Most will be planting with some tillage.

Owners Craig Rupp and Kyler Laird are finding out what it takes to provide autonomous farm services to growers next year.

“We’re at the proof-of-concept stage,” Rupp says. “We’re learning what challenges are out there and gaining experience.

“Autonomous farming, including planting, is a reality … it’s happening today (May 3) near Sac City,” he adds. “This is really exciting.”

The company, based in Ames, Iowa, and Rensselaer, Indiana, autonomously planted 500 acres of soybeans for Bellcock Farms early last month using a remote-operated JCB 4220 Fastrac tractor pulling an 18-row Harvest International planter. It’s one of 10 farms in the U.S. and Canada scheduled to be a test site.

Rupp and Laird, ag technology experts, believe autonomous farming is the future. Their vision is to have teams scattered throughout the country and Canada--possibly worldwide--to plant, spray and harvest crops, as well as till ground.

Equipment will be operated and monitored from a central location, Rupp says. One- or two-person teams will transport, maintain and fill equipment with seed, fuel, etc. “We’re creating a system that you can put in the field, and it just takes off and will go 24/7,” he continues.

Laird adds, “I see the potential to help keep people farming in a competitive environment. Not everyone can afford a new planter ... they will just hire it done like my dad did with spraying.”

Customers will likely farm 10,000 or more acres but could be smaller operators, too, Laird explains. Custom rates will be “competitive,” Rupp adds.

Larry Bellcock and his sons, Justin and Josh, farm more than 5,000 acres. The family, like many in the Midwest, has struggled to get soybeans and corn planted in a timely manner because of persistent rain and wet conditions.

Less labor and time to plant a crop are two big advantages of autonomous technology, Justin says. This year’s weather delays are a perfect example.

“We like new technology, and we’re always looking for the next big thing,” Justin says. “If they (Sabanto) are capable of going 24/7 to beat the rain, that’s a big benefit.

“I could see hiring them to help us plant,” he adds. “If we can plant at the beginning of May or in April, that can be a 10-bushel-per-acre advantage compared to planting at the end of May.”

Sabanto partners with Climate FieldView to collect, store, visualize and use field data. It also works with DigiFarm to provide cellular RTK (real-time kinematic) correction services, which are compatible with all brands of GPS receivers. It creates a virtual base station in close proximity to where farmers work. The planter and tractor have the latest Precision Planting technology like DeltaForce, vSet and the SeedSense 20/20 display.

All are connected to the tractor’s computer to control steering, speed, engine power and planter functions, everything needed to plant. Rupp and Laird continue to learn valuable lessons about equipment setup, software, connectivity and the weather.

“The opportunities are great, but there’s a learning curve,” Rupp says. “We’re working through the bugs, GPS positioning, networking and equipment issues that crop up. We’ll get it worked out.”

Laird controls the tractor and planter on his laptop from his motor home next to the field. Rupp observes from the tractor seat or from the ground nearby as it is planted. Laird estimates an autonomous tractor and 18-row planter can click off more than 500 acres a day.

“This is an option for anyone trying to be more efficient and make more money,” he says.


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