Meet DOT: the self-driving power implement

A Saskatchewan-based company has developed 
an autonomous tractor — minus the tractor

Bigger doesn’t always mean better — but that’s been the story of farm machinery for decades.

However, could the era of huge, hulking tractors and the big implements they pull be coming to an end?

Norbert Beaujot thinks so, even though the founder of SeedMaster spent most of his career building some of those increasingly heavier and larger machines.

But the equipment made by his company and other manufacturers has some serious flaws, said Beaujot.

“We’ve become leaders in building really big equipment that’s successful in many ways but always carries with it inefficiencies and other kinds of hidden costs such as compaction and overall fuel usage,” he said.

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Beaujot caught the imagination of Prairie farmers last summer when he unveiled a fully functioning DOT Autonomous Power Platform at the Ag in Motion outdoor farm show.

The U-shaped machine is a self-propelled, hydraulically driven platform that replaces the pulling of implements such as seeders in favour of, essentially, carrying them.

And most startlingly, there’s no cab.

Instead, GPS technology similar to that used in self-driving automobiles means the DOT platform can be programmed to follow a specific route and stop on a dime for any obstacles. All the while, it sends back a stream of data so the producer can monitor progress and diagnostics remotely with a tablet equipped with specialized software.

Putting a seeder or sprayer directly on the platform also means a smaller engine and lighter machine that burns considerably less fuel. And no cab means an end to the long, tiring hours involved in operating traditional equipment.

Farmers intrigued

Switching over to an entirely new set of machinery is obviously a major undertaking.

But Beaujot’s creation has definitely piqued the interest of many producers.

“I think it’s coming. I think there’s a big fit for it. I’d buy a prototype today if I could,” said Justin Kelly, a wheat, canola and pea producer and agronomy consultant from Cut Knife, Sask.

“We already have auto steer so half the time I’m sitting on a tractor or sprayer or something like that and I’m not driving it anyway. I’m just sitting there to make sure it’s working and turn around at the end of the field.”

Brianne Brault, who farms with husband Davy Matula east of High Prairie, said she hopes to buy one once the bugs are worked out and as long as it is reasonably priced.

“A brand new tractor is $700,000 and a brand new, great big seed drill can be in the $700,000 range — that’s $1.4 million to seed your crop,” she says. “If you can buy a less expensive robot that can run longer and save you some time, to me it’s a no-brainer.”

The DOT platform with a seeder and sprayer will be priced well under that, said Beaujot.

It’s estimated a full package including the platform, four product tanks on a 30-foot seeder, a 60-foot sprayer with a 1,000-gallon tank, and a grain cart will cost about US$500,000, he said. (It’s priced in U.S. dollars because most of the major components are purchased south of the border.)

“The reason it will cost less is because we are able to eliminate a lot of things,” said Beaujot. “We spend more on the power unit because it’s got a tremendous amount of electronics and sensors, but the implements become much, much cheaper.

“The sprayer is ridiculously cheap compared to a high-clearance sprayer, but even with simple items like grain carts, when you eliminate the wheels, spindles, axles, and hitches you take away a big part of the cost of that implement.”

‘Between obsession and passion’

Ask Beaujot about the thought process behind the DOT and he’ll tell you, “My whole life has been leading up to it.”

In 1991 he developed a key piece of precision ag technology — the first active hydraulic, ground-hugging, individual row opener. That innovation became the heart of air drill maker SeedMaster, located near Regina.

Ever since, Beaujot has been on the lookout for any ideas that make farming more economically and environmentally efficient. However, he’s often found himself frustrated by the trend towards ever bigger and heavier equipment.

Then came the first prototypes of self-driving cars.

The technology caught Beaujot’s imagination and he was soon looking at ways it could be applied to agriculture. His first instinct was to develop an autonomous seeder, but he felt that didn’t line up with the technology’s potential.

“It seemed to be a waste to develop something that good that is only meant for seeding,” he said. “So it got me looking at different ways of developing a platform that would handle multitudes of different implements.

“When I came up with the U shape as a way of handling a whole array of implements and having very quick ways of loading and unloading implements, it became something between an obsession and a passion.”

How DOT runs

The platform is 12×18 feet, weighs 12,000 pounds (without implements), and is powered by a 4.5-litre turbocharged Cummins diesel engine. It uses its hydraulic arms to lock into a DOT-ready implement and lift it onto its platform. The operator creates a GPS path or “flight plan” with the system’s specialized computer program. This flight plan is comprised of a series of geographical waypoints — or dots — which the unit follows as it covers a field. (The machine’s name comes partly from that but is also a tribute to Beaujot’s mother Dorothy, who was often called Dot.)

“Basically everything DOT really needs will be controlled through a tablet,” said Owen Kinch, field research manager with SeedMaster who has overseen the development of its software. “That tablet will be your portal into the DOT system. The work area or field boundaries will be defined from that tablet. Once that flight path is created, it’s sent to DOT itself and communicated through a local Wi-Fi network included with DOT.”

The machine’s computer will calculate the complete travel path in less than a second, said Kinch, laying out every turn around sloughs, power poles, and headlands.

“The farmer can change the A to B heading set point for the field and the travel path is updated in real time, showing the farmer how that affects the overall time to complete the field so he can choose the most efficient path,” said Kinch.

The unit is programmed to stop for an object as small as one square foot.

“We’re using similar sensors to what autonomous cars are using to go down four-lane highways,” said Beaujot. “We have a lot of overkill in terms of being able to recognize different objects on farmland.

“If it deviates from its path at all we give it a factor of two or three feet and it just stops the unit and buzzes the operator through the tablet to check it out.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean farmers will have to drive out to their fields five times a day to, say, pick up a rock. Multiple cameras mounted on the DOT will stream high-resolution video to the tablet, allowing the operator to override a stoppage if it’s a false alarm.

“Obviously we don’t want them making unnecessary trips out into the field,” said Kinch. “There will be multiple cameras so the operator can scroll through all of the cameras and be 100 per cent confident that it is safe to proceed. From the user interface they will have pause, play, and stop buttons for the autonomous missions.”

More implements coming

DOT will be compatible with SeedMaster implements and a number of manufacturers from around the world are interested in developing their own DOT-ready implements, Beaujot said. SeedMaster is collaborating with them — a smart move as buy-in from other equipment makers will likely be critical to the machine’s acceptance in the marketplace.

“We share with them our engineering drawings and advice but they have to pay for their own modifications and supply any specific software or hardware that is specific to their device,” he said.

“The interest is coming way faster than we can handle it. We haven’t even had time to visit with all of the companies that have shown interest. It’s really exciting.”

DOT has potential applications in other industries and that’s drawn interest, too, said Beaujot.

“When the guys were at Agritechnica in Germany, an owner of a lumber mill in Chile had flown to Germany for the show just to talk to us about DOT. He’s using a tractor to move logs from a storage location to his mill. It’s a two-kilometre-long route… DOT would make a huge difference to him — saving on the cost of the unit a bit but mostly on labour and efficiency.”

Beaujot envisions a number of ways other industries could mould DOT to their own needs.

“For example, a power company could develop a rig with all the geo-referenced locations for power poles and have it go ahead and drill them out and analyze the soil quality at the same time,” he said. “It has so many record-keeping capabilities.”

Hitting the road

So when will DOT go on sale?

Select producers in the Regina area will get the first ones this year. Buyers who put down a refundable deposit will be first in line when the platform is given a wider release in 2019.

“We make that deposit refundable because we don’t know exactly when we’re going to be ready,” said Beaujot. “They can ask to stay on the list, or ask to be removed and get their money back at any time. If things are going well we can build quite a number for 2019 and then many more again for 2020.”

DOT also needs to be approved for travel on public roads. Its wheels turn sideways so it can travel lengthways and Beaujot said SeedMaster hopes to piggyback on allowances currently being made for autonomous cars.

“We don’t see any roadblocks,” he said. “As far as road use and other public property movement in autonomous mode, I think it will happen as quickly as autonomous cars because we can prove very quickly that it’s safer than an autonomously driven car.

“That’ll take a few years possibly, but there are lots of other methods of moving from farm to farm that are controlled by the farmer, such as loading on trailers.”

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