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Connecting the DOTs

DOT is what happens when farming processes are examined carefully. Does seeding require bigger machines? Does spraying mean going faster and wider? Does anyone need to pilot a field roller? Or any other field machine, except maybe a combine, for now?

The new machine design, the DOT, retires the tractor and giant airseeder and drill from the field and substitutes a much smaller U-shaped, operator-less, powered platform and air drill. The latter can be swapped for a sprayer, land roller, grain cart or any of about 100 other implements and industrial tools that have already been identified for autonomous automation.

After a debut to thousands of farmers at last summer’s Ag In Motion farm show, DOT, or at least its technology, has been making the rounds of industry events in search of feedback.

“We are reaching out to farmers to get their thoughts. We know this is a big change, but farmers see it and get what it could mean,” said Norbert Beaujot, the founder of SeedMaster and the creator of DOT.

For the past three winters, one of the fathers of reduced tillage equipment has been taking in the sun in Mexico and considering the next step-change in agriculture autonomous work.

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“Stepping back from the day-to-day has given me the opportunity to consider the subject of farm machinery size, the constant trading cycle and everything that goes with it,” said Beaujot.

The seeding equipment inventor and manufacturer built his Saskatchewan operation into a global business that continues to grow after 25 years.

Despite marketing one of the world’s largest seed drills, Beaujot said “bigger isn’t the answer in the long run.”

“I asked myself why we need the tractor in the first place. It is just a part of bigger,” he said.

It’s a big, U-shaped tool carrier that wraps around the implements it operates. There’s no need for giant tires, ballast and hundreds of horsepower just to move the power unit or cab and operator station.

“We purposely didn’t put a seat on it. If it was there, somebody would want to sit on it. That’s the wrong direction,” said Beaujot.

The DOT platform is designed to carry and power the implements, following a predetermined waypath in the field.

Trent Meyer, who runs SeedMaster, a sister company to Dot Technology Corp., said optimizing those paths is one way that the DOT system pays its way.

“No farmer intends to drive around needlessly in their fields, but no farmer will tell you it doesn’t happen all the time.… With DOT, the farmer predetermines where the machine will travel before it gets to the field, for the most efficient operations,” he said about the system’s specialized guidance and field operations software.

The DOT is aimed at a 30-foot wide tool for the North American, Eastern European and Australian markets. A smaller version might also be built for Europe and Asia.

Two of the DOT units could seed 4,000 acres “with lots of capacity to spare,” said Meyer.

“They would do the work of a 70 or 80 foot unit and do it far more efficiently,” he said.

As well, an operator could run multiple machines because of the autonomous operation.

Beaujot said the labour savings are significant, but the machines also don’t need to stop to accommodate human needs.

The company is offering licensing opportunities to other manufacturers on a “cost recovery basis.”

“Not every farmer wants a Seed-Master (seeding unit). They might want somebody else’s technology, and that is great, too,” he said.

Implements attach to the DOT with a set of latches, and the unit picks up the tool and powers it.

Change in the industry and overall technology originally spurred Beaujot to start working on a “different path.”

Meyer said business realities were also creeping into the thinking at SeedMaster.

“Rapid devaluation of farm equipment has been a growing issue for both manufacturers and farmers, and that was dragging down our business. So it also made good business sense to be involved in a solution,” he said.

“In August of 2016 CaseIH came out with their cabless, autonomous tractor and we knew that it would grease the wheels a little. Before that ATS, who did the (autonomous system) for CaseIH, declined to work with us, so we knew someone was working on a solution and it was time to get on this project,” said Meyer.

“No driver. The connection behind the tractor is a problem. Get away from the drawbar and hitch and you take out some of that unpredictability when it comes to precision placement (in the field),” he said.

“We found some key inefficiencies (in what is done now): need smaller more nimble units, lower power per acre, lower investment, higher degrees of functionality. And that is what was targeted.”

Next spring, when the first six units will be on farms for testing, producers will be following their predetermined paths, and sets of eight cameras will be watching out and recording if the machines run off their established trails.

“At a maximum of five m.p.h. in the seeder and eight in the sprayer, we don’t believe machines need operators,” Meyer told farmers attending Canola Week meetings in Saskatoon earlier this month.

Before a single rank toolbar could be designed, which is needed for the relatively narrow DOT to operate at legal road widths, Beaujot had to solve another issue. Seeding tools on the relatively narrow spacings needed for the small grains and oilseeds grown on the Prairies, 12 to 15 inches at most, need to be set on toolbars in multiple ranks for residue clearance.

“I have been working on that since the start of Seed Hawk,” he said of more than 25 years of trying to deal with the issue.

“And we have it,” he said about a driven, flexible pin-disc that he developed to operate between the shanks.

“It allows us to run narrow (rows) without plugging.”

The narrow width allows DOT to turn end-ways for transport. The 30-foot unit rotates and measures just 12 feet wide when operating on the road.

Beaujot has long been concerned with the size of machinery in transport, so this met one of the safety and road damage objectives. The 30-foot width was based on average seeding windows and combine capacities.

SeedMaster’s field residue blockage removal tool runs between a single rank of precision air drill shanks. Its flexibility to rise and fall with the shanks, but rely on the co-operative power of the whole section, makes it unique.

By the time the machines reach the production phase, a Tier 5 emissions compliant 200 horsepower diesel engine will provide the juice for all operations. It’s currently a 164 h.p. Individual wheel motors and high efficiency hydraulics allow for some creative field maneuvers that a tractor and towed implement could not achieve. As well, per acre fuel costs are very low with average savings of about 30 percent.

At about 8,000 pounds, the DOT powered platform weighs about as much as some large pick-up trucks. The seeder or other implement adds the additional weight needed for field traction.

“There is a lot of waste in running that massive tractor, with that big glass cab and air conditioning around in the field. And soil compaction,” said Meyer.

While safety might be something that comes to mind, “there will be 25,000 U.S. cars running on roads in 2018, 100,000 by 2020,” he said about the technology that DOT uses for navigation and fail-safes.

“Sensor technology has become so inexpensive and effective because of cars, this is only really now possible.”

The scalable system allows farmers from 1,500 to 3,000 acres to run one unit, and then producers can add machines for each subsequent jump in operational size, “which pairs well with combine economics.”

The company believes the resale will be better than with the very largest equipment that now dominates small grains and oilseed farms because the machines can be used by a wider selection of producers.

They also feel that as producers’ average age rises, it opens up the window for older farmers to remain active, cutting the “cab-time.”

The company hopes to see machines available for sale by 2019.

“This is prairie farmer’s solution to autonomous machinery. They can ditch the hitch,” said Beaujot.

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