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Autonomous planting comes to the American Midwest

Illinois-based company Sabanto pursues efficiency with smaller-scale approach to autonomous equipment.

Autonomous orange tractors have been planting their way across the American Midwest this year – and farmers are taking notice.

The fleet of small Kubota tractors is owned by Sabanto Inc, an Illinois-based farm-service company that, for its second year, has been offering farmers in Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, and Iowa an autonomous planting service.

According to Craig Rupp, chief executive officer for Sabanto, the success of their autonomous service venture lies in on-the-ground refinement, as well as an endemic lack of farm labour.

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Sabanto, a robotic farming-as-a-service company, autonomously plants soybeans on a Iowa farm in the spring of 2020 using a Kubota utility tractor and five-row planter. The company is using multiple identical units in the same field. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde
Sabanto, a robotic farming-as-a-service company, autonomously plants soybeans on a Iowa farm in the spring of 2020 using a Kubota utility tractor and five-row planter. The company is using multiple identical units in the same field. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde

Labour shortages driving force behind autonomous technology

The endemic lack of manpower, says Rupp, has been one of the main driving forces behind his company’s development and use of autonomous technology.

While the ongoing pandemic has not helped the situation, particularly for those relying on temporary foreign workers, the desperation of crop farmers in the Midwest has generally not increased – many of whom already had to employ local retirees, older family members, or even those who already manage another seasonal job to operate equipment.

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Sabanto co-owner Craig Rupp makes sure a driverless tractor and planter that is coming to the end of a row lifts the planter, makes a turn and resumes planting on its own. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde
Sabanto co-owner Craig Rupp makes sure a driverless tractor and planter that is coming to the end of a row lifts the planter, makes a turn and resumes planting on its own. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde

Small driverless tractors

“A lot of the qualified labourers are working elsewhere, and the farmers just can’t find the personnel,” says Rupp. “Every farmer I talk to has labour issues.” He adds there are parts of the country where some producers are scaling back operations as a result.

Labour concerns, plus the novelty of seeing small driverless tractors means Rupp and his colleagues are frequently called-upon while operating in the field. “Practically every farmer stops,” he says.

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Tractors augmented for autonomy

Sabanto’s current service utilises four 60 horsepower Kubota 5660 tractors attached to Harvest International planters set for five-row, 20 inch (50 centimetre) soybeans. The autonomous system itself is a separate technology outfitted to each tractor, though it’s still possible to get on and drive manually.

Rupp and his team communicate with the machines via cellular signals and localized Wi-Fi. When they come to a field, they strike the boundary, create maps, and download them to each unit. Operations can then begin.

We remotely supervise it, but lately it’s just set and forget. It follows the path and we monitor the performance of it

“We’re starting with soybeans because farmers are less specific about it compared to corn. It could do other crops like corn and cotton, but this is where we’re starting,” Rupp says. “We remotely supervise it, but lately it’s just set and forget. It follows the path and we monitor the performance of it.”

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Sabanto co-owner Craig Rupp with a Kubota M5660SU tractor being used to autonomously plant soybeans. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde
Sabanto co-owner Craig Rupp with a Kubota M5660SU tractor being used to autonomously plant soybeans. - Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde

Smaller equipment unique – and beneficial

Rupp says their autonomous system can be adapted to any size tractor, and the scale of their equipment – which is comparatively small to the often-large tractors used in the Midwest – is by design.

Indeed, the previous year his company operated a 225 horse-power tractor, towing an 18-row planter, with their autonomous system. But hauling it from field-to-field was not the most cost-effective strategy. The smaller Kubotas are more practical, and also lessen the possibility of compaction.

“We started small, but can certainly scale in horsepower and size. That’s part of the software work,” says Rupp. “I wanted to set a precedent with the equipment software and procedure.”

Regarding the costs of hiring an autonomous tractor, and how this workes out in relation to the costs of running a tractor with a driver, Rupp could‘nt comment yet.

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Sabanto’s current service utilises four 60 horsepower Kubota 5660 tractors attached to Harvest International planters set for five-row, 20 inch (50 centimetre) soybeans. - Photo: Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde
Sabanto’s current service utilises four 60 horsepower Kubota 5660 tractors attached to Harvest International planters set for five-row, 20 inch (50 centimetre) soybeans. - Photo: Photo: DTN/Progressive Farmer, Matt Wilde

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