Ag tech firm plans 10K acres of soybean planting with driverless tractors
FARGO, N.D.—The chief executive of an Iowa company has announced a "stretch goal" to plant 10,000 acres of American soybeans in 2019. The wrinkle is his custom farming company will use "supervised" autonomous tractors.
The company is called Sabanto Inc. of Ames, Iowa. Craig Rupp, the company's chief executive officer who has a track record in high-tech ag business, spoke Wednesday, March 6, to more than 100 attendees at a 1 Million Cups event in Fargo. The event is hosted by Fargo tech company Emerging Prairie, led by Greg Tehven.
Rupp, 53, says he'll be operating his farming service from Texas to Canada. "We have the acres lined up and we're going to go out this spring and see how much trouble we can get into," he said.
Client acreages will range from about 20 to 400 acres. Sabanto provides no agronomy or input services. Some acres will be in the Aberdeen, S.D., and Mankato, Minn., areas. He also has acres in Nebraska and is working toward getting some in North Dakota. Initially it will only be planting and fall tillage. For information and updates on the project, go to https://sabantoag.com/
Who is this guy?
Sabanto is Rupp's fifth start-up firm .
He grew up on a farm at Cherokee, Iowa, in the northwest part of the state. He has an electrical engineering degree from Iowa State University in Ames. He went on for a master's in signal processing at Illinois Institute of Technology in 1993.
He started his career in wireless communication technology. From 2002 to 2004, he worked at John Deere, where he designed and developed Deere's Starfire receiver and Greenstar display system. From 2005 to 2014 he was "chief measurement architect" for National Instruments in Austin, Texas, which designs and deploys measurement algorithms for AM, FM, Bluetooth and other signals.
From 2012 to December 2014, he co-founded 640 Labs, a Chicago company where he created an open-data platform for getting information from a tractor or combine to an iPad computer and then to the "cloud."
Monsanto Co. acquired 640 Labs in 2014 and put it under The Climate Corporation umbrella, where Rupp remained as director of engineering/senior fellow through July 2018. The 640 Drive device was later branded as FieldView Drive— what he calls the "lowest-cost ubiquitous data collection device in agriculture."
Two ag techies
In 2017, Rupp was a judge at the 2017 "agBOT Seeding Challenge," an Indiana-based international competition to create autonomous robots capable of performing agricultural tasks.
There, he met Kyler Laird, the owner of a 1,700-acre corn and soybean farm at Rensselaer, Ind., between Chicago and Indianapolis. Laird also is a computer scientist and an innovator with autonomous farming on his own farm.
In October 2018, Rupp and Laird, created Sabanto. ("Sabanto" is a Japanese word for "servant.")
Laird got his computer science degree and a master's degree from Purdue University's School of Engineering. In 2001, Laird helped found the University of California Merced, and in 2007 established Laird Scape LLC, (also listed as Lairdscape) a commercial farm.
In 2016, Laird he automated a Massey Ferguson 2745, dubbed "Tractobot01," which included components for steering, front-wheel turning and location-monitoring, and raising and lowering implements. Laird went on to create"Tractorbot02"—an MT765 Challenger tractor, for pulling a grain cart.
In 2017 and 2018, Laird used the "Tractorbot03"—a John Deere 6330—pulling a retro-fitted John Deere 7300 planter—to plant 535 acres.
Rupp told event-goers that farm tractors are like expensive sports cars—both costing a fortune and both underutilized. Rupp has concluded that "farm equipment is the most expensive, widespread, underutilized capital there ever was." Rupp figures that if it can be used to autonomously custom-plant acres from south to north, the utilization could increase 10 times—from 3 percent of a year to 30 percent.
He envisions that a custom autonomous farming system could be provided on-demand, something like FedEx, which owns trucks and airplanes but is neither a trucking company or airline.
"We'll show up at the drop of a hat and perform autonomous field operations," he said. "At this point, I wish I could tell you exactly how it's going to turn out—a local group doing this, or nationwide," he says. "I have to figure that out."
For this year's work, Rupp will drive a truck to deliver the equipment and will handle logistics. He says he's thinking about handling the transportation issues and contending with weather and delays. All autonomous activity is in-field, he said. He assured the audience he has liability insurance.
Rupp says the clients can consider Sabanto a "Plan A," but that they also should have a Plan B and C. He declines to say how much he's charging, but acknowledges it varies based on strategic customers.
Rupp is working on the safety system and business aspects, including promotion. Laird is working on the planting system itself and a third employee is a software programmer.
"I will not stand for high capital expenditures in my business," Rupp says. "We're a service company. I will not sell autonomous equipment."
Rupp and Laird plan to stay in the service business because they think autonomous ag technology will be "very difficult to productize, deploy and scale." It's an inconvenient truth for the major manufacturers, but the computer hardware components required for autonomy "is a commodity today," he said.
Audience questions were curious and mixed. Ace Brandt of Brandt Holdings of Fargo operates companies with John Deere stores in North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. He asked Rupp why John Deere isn't "in tune" with what he's doing, even though they're also working in autonomous equipment equipment.
"Deere is a big company," Rupp carefully responded. "It's a big ship and to move that into another direction takes a lot of energy. It's easier to build an Amazon than to change a Sears. I don't think anyone's heading down the path that we're on right now, but we'll see."
Landon Dick, 22, a North Dakota State University agricultural economics student from Devils Lake, N.D., said he thinks autonomous farming seem inevitable. "I would think so," he said.
Rupp acknowledged he's learned about a Fargo-area effort to create an autonomous demonstration. He encourages it and applauds it and has talked with organizers about possibly becoming involved with it. Tehven, who is also involved with the local autonomous farm project, said it is still developing, but he's talked with Rupp about it.