Operators of Eastern Canada’s first DOT Power-Platform are very enthused with its performance so far.
Haggerty Creek Ltd., a grain elevator and farm service provider in Southwestern Ontario, took possession of a DOT Power Platform and accompanying fertiliser cart unit in May of this year.
With plans to use DOT for both fertiliser application, and eventually corn planting, operations manager Chuck Baresich says their end goal is to sell the much-hyped autonomous vehicle to Ontario farmers.
The autonomous machine was assembled at Haggerty Creek on May 12, then used to apply fertiliser on 150 acres the following day. Tweaks might need to be made, but the operators of Eastern Canada’s first working DOT Power-Platform say they’re very enthused with its performance so far.
What is DOT, and what does it do?
The DOT Power Platform is an autonomous, diesel-powered unit designed to do a variety of in field tasks, currently including granular fertiliser application, spraying, and planting. Interchangeable units are available for each specific task, all of which are designed to fit the U-shaped schematic of the central unit.
After mapping field boundaries and avoidance areas with a GPS receiver, the user approves and uploads a path plan to DOT software. In-field autonomous operation can then begin.
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“Our initial intention is to actually use it on our own operation,” says Baresich, adding the reason they are initially using DOT for fertiliser application, and on their own land, is because the machine needs to be fine-tuned to fit Ontario field conditions.
Long interested in the technology, Baresich observed DOT working effectively in its native prairie environment during a previous visit to Raven’s Saskatchewan research farm. However, the wide-sweeping turns, speed, and a variety of other small factors that worked so well in the prairie environment could actually pose problems in the smaller – and sometimes more varied – confines of Ontario fields.
Those problems, however, derive not from hardware constraints, but from well-intended precautions built into the platform’s standard operating software. “The manufacturers put restrictions in the programming to limit how sharp it can turn. It was a safety thing,” says Baresich.
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Their localised research is being conducted with support from the DOT manufacturers. That is, when a problem like turn radius is cited, Haggerty Creek and the manufacturer engaged in a back-and-forth action to optimise the platform’s ability to get into and maneuver within field corners and edges.
There are little problems, but if you’re okay with that its fine. As long as it’s not slowing down the job
“The machine can do it, just the programming needs to be altered. Most issues were just little software things like tuning the engine for more appropriate turning speeds. There are little problems, but if you’re okay with that its fine. As long as it’s not slowing down the job,” Baresich says.
Each field in which DOT operates at Haggerty Creek is mapped ahead of time via a small all-terrain-vehicle. Exclusion zones such as wet or swampy areas within the perimeter are also identified and incorporated into the coverage plan. This sets the parameters in which the platform can autonomously operate using its perception system.
But while Baresich observed the perception system working quite well during his Saskatchewan visit – he saw the platform drive itself to the work site and commence the job without issue – he and his Haggerty Creek colleagues are not willing to leave it unattended while they continue tweaking its programming. “One of the things we didn’t fully realise is planning what you’re going to do ahead of time,” says Baresich. “Every time it gets to the edge of the field, you’re happy it slows down.”
So for the time being, operators continue following the platform to ensure issues don’t arise. Doing so gives them additional opportunities to measure and evaluate whether further alterations could be made.
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A physical shut-off system is also being used for an additional safety measure. It’s comprised of cables connected to pairs of hinged arms extending outwards from the machine’s four corners – the idea being any obstruction will hit the cable, opening the arms, and triggering a shut-down response.
Still, Baresich says one of the best parts about it using DOT is being able to watch the machine work while doing other things, like calling clients or various agronomic tasks. “You can’t do those things while manually operating a piece of equipment.”
Like other large pieces of field equipment, The DOT Power Platform doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the central unit remains around $ 300,000, with each implement ranging from $ 150,000 to $ 200,000 depending on how many of what Baresich calls “bells and whistles” you want.
Overall, the work being done at Haggerty Creek stems from both a genuine interest in field autonomy, as well as a recognition that issues with DOT have to be worked out before the platform can be successfully marketed to Ontario farmers.
In 2019, we talked to Rick Pattison, president of Pattison Liquid Systems Inc. – the Canadian company developing the DOT platform. Check it out.