Autonomous tractors at work for Church Brothers Farms

07-05 | Updated on 10-06 | |
Photo: Bear Flag Robotics
Photo: Bear Flag Robotics

Bear Flag Robotics teamed up with Church Brothers Farms in Salina, California., to equip them with self-driving tractor technology.

Generations have dreamed about self-driving vehicles. Now, as both agtech and robotics are growing with each other, fully autonomous solutions are finally making their debut on the farm.

Bear Flag Robotics teamed up with Church Brothers Farms in Salina, California (United States)., to equip them with self-driving tractor technology. After having used this for a couple of years, Josh Ruiz, vice president of ag operations for Church Brothers, is able to look back and evaluate the impact. Besides being a farmer himself, a large part of his role is to explore new technology and innovation to enhance the company.

“We‘re always constantly looking for new tech and new innovation,” he says, “just because we recognize the fact that change has to happen.”

One of the opportunities he came across was Bear Flag Robotics, based out of Newark, Calif., that specializes in creating technology that equips farm tractors to operate fully autonomously. Being an original equipment manufacturer, Bear Flag’s technology can be customized to fit any make of machine.

Going driverless

In the beginning, Ruiz admits he was a bit skeptical. Like most operators, he believes that when investing in any sort of agtech, it should be able to replace multiple laborers. By just eliminating one driver, he wasn’t totally convinced.

“(I) quickly started thinking about it,” he says, “and came to realize that there were more benefits to it than that, especially with the increased cost of labor in California.”

Bear Flag first came out and demoed their system on a couple of trials in 2019 using John Deere 8RT and 6R models. After that, Juiz and his coworkers saw the potential. They agreed to run one Bear Flag-modified tractor for the full 2020 growing season.

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Bear Flag first came out and demoed their system on a couple of trials in 2019 using John Deere 8RT and 6R models. - Bear Flag Robotics

Bear Flag first came out and demoed their system on a couple of trials in 2019 using John Deere 8RT and 6R models. – Bear Flag Robotics

Camera, lidar and radar

This setup equipped the tractor with a camera, lidar and radar to give it a real-time evaluation of its environment at all times. The Bear Flag system can be operated entirely remotely from a mission control center on a tablet or computer. This gives operators real-time information about what’s happening in and around the tractor accessible at any time. It even gives full access to the live video feeds mounted on the tractor to get a real feel for what’s happening in the field.

I quickly came to realize that the computers…do more of a technical job than it’s asked to do

One of the significant benefits of having an autonomous tractor is it can go to work at any time of day from remote commands. “The computer doesn’t care what time of day it is or what day it is,” says Ruiz. “I quickly came to realize that the computers…do more of a technical job than it’s asked to do.”

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Josh Ruiz (48) is vice president of ag operations at PNC Farms. “We're always constantly looking for new tech and new innovation,” he says, “just because we recognize the fact that change has to happen.” - Photo: Church Brothers

Josh Ruiz (48) is vice president of ag operations at PNC Farms. “We’re always constantly looking for new tech and new innovation,” he says, “just because we recognize the fact that change has to happen.” – Photo: Church Brothers

Disking

An example he gives of this is disking. One of the benefits of an automated machine is its ability to automatically slow down and speed up according to topography. This eliminates some of the error that naturally comes with human nature, resulting in an overall more efficient and complete job. “I like those features about it,” he continues, “being able to operate whenever I needed it to and being able to operate exactly as we wanted.”

Another of his favorite aspects of automation is being able to command a tractor at any time of any day. Unlike employees, he says, autonomous systems don’t have a weekend to look forward to or times they are unavailable.

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One tractor delivers $ 500,000 of value per year

According to Bear Flag Robotics’ founder Igino Cafiero, a single one of their tractors can deliver up to $ 500,000 of value per year. This is priced on a per acre basis. Cafiero notes that their prices are competitive with the grower’s internal costs.

While overall impressed with how the autonomous tractor has performed, Ruiz says the biggest pitfall they face is that it is not yet approved by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He is optimistic this will be happening in the very near future, but in the meantime, he is required by law to have a designated “safety driver” sitting in the cab while the tractor runs.

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Automation is only practical for large operations, says Josh Ruiz. For example, the ranch he operates with the Bear Flag tractor is well equipped at 1,000 continuous acres, but on some of their smaller ranches with only a couple hundred acres automation wouldn’t be beneficial. - Photo: Bear Flag Robotics

Automation is only practical for large operations, says Josh Ruiz. For example, the ranch he operates with the Bear Flag tractor is well equipped at 1,000 continuous acres, but on some of their smaller ranches with only a couple hundred acres automation wouldn’t be beneficial. – Photo: Bear Flag Robotics

More automation on the horizon

Once that issue is resolved, Church Brothers is optimistic more automation will be on their horizon. In addition to the Bear Flag tractor, Ruiz says they also have two other autonomous machines that are doing other jobs. He believes that autonomy is something that will be very important for their company moving forward – especially as the cost of labor continues to rise.

He says this noting that automation is only practical for large operations. For example, the ranch he operates with the Bear Flag tractor is well equipped at 1,000 continuous acres, but on some of their smaller ranches with only a couple hundred acres automation wouldn’t be beneficial.

“I foresee a future where we have a charging station or a home base in the middle of the ranch,” he says, “and then every day we have autonomous vehicles that leave that home base, and head out on to work.”

PNC Farms

Part of Church Brothers LLC

Location: Salinas Valley in Gonzales, California
Acreage: > 1,000
Crops: Iceberg, romaine and green leaf lettuce, broccoli
Tractor: John Deere (8RTs and 6Rs)

Krymowski