Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Agriculture Automation is Progressing Slowly

This week's World Ag Expo in Tulare, California was a massive agricultural trade show.  With an expected 100,000 visitors (of which 13% were foreign), 1,600 exhibitors and 60+ acres (2.6 million sq ft) of exhibition space.  Massive!  Outdoors, indoors, trams to cover the distances and food stalls of every type, mostly with BBQ smoke stoking the desire buds... read on for the diet-killer of all time.

Everything was big: tractors, trams, even the show's sound system - see the speakers hanging from the crane.
Finding things robotic gave a different picture: a few vendors with inroads, fewer techie companies attempting to offer new products and not too much on display.

The big players were John Deere, Trimble, DeLaval, Case and AgLeader.  Smaller vendors like Micro-Trak Systems, Raven and wholly owned subsidiaries like WeedSeeker (Trimble) also had booths.

At each of their spaces I asked the same questions:
  • How is your product being adopted?
  • Are sales okay, good, or great?
  • Do you see future sales rising more quickly (and if so, why)?
The answers were quite similar: with the rising cost of seed, sprays and labor, and the lower costs of automation sensors, software and tracking devices, automation systems are a steadily growing and necessary part of the overall ag business which most of the larger producers are adopting. As a result, most of the big vendors are seeing corresponding sales gains.  Buyers are not early adopters.  Instead they are just doing what's necessary to cope with rising costs and the need to automate to stay effective and competitive.

Sensor and motion-vision based systems - flow control type applications - are particularly slow to be adopted because, up until now, they have been excessively costly. Now, with costs changing, they are getting a second look. 

All the sales people said that they estimate more than 50% of tractors are fitted with some form of Autotrak or EZ-drive unmanned nav/driver system. Yet there is no collision avoidance, nor has the liability for improper spraying or collision been resolved, nor are there night operation sensors, hence, these devices must still have an onboard "driver."

Trimble had a bull-pen with demo four-wheelers and one of the ag colleges was using a John Deere tractor simulator/training device - but generally there was little interest and no crowds for the tech stuff.

Yet Trimble's Connected Farm - a new system of software and communication services  to wirelessly sync precision farming data - was one of the winners of the show's Top 10 Tech Innovations. Trimble was also a winner for their Yuma farm- and ranch-rugged tablet computer.

I ate sensibly at mealtimes. I've been on a diet and doing well until I encountered... the ultimate diet-buster! Using an unusual method of outdoor cooking, this booth shot my will power with one of their briquets.