Self-driving tractors to cattle-ranching drones — ag show looks at future of farming

On Tuesday, in Olds, Alta., farmers and ranchers gathered for a glimpse of the cutting-edge technologies that some believe will usher in the next transformation of the industry.

'Agriculture isn’t about the red barn and the overalls anymore,' says Olds College president Stuart Cullum.

CEO of Dot Technology Corporation Robert Saik. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

From scythes to combines, from oxen-pulled ploughs to tractors — it's not hyperbole to say technological upgrades in farming have laid the groundwork for modern civilization.

On Tuesday, in Olds, Alta., farmers and ranchers gathered for a glimpse of the cutting-edge technologies that some believe will usher in the next transformation of the industry.

"Agriculture isn't about the red barn and the overalls anymore. It's high-tech and sophisticated and it requires a lot of skillsets now. That's something the public doesn't always understand," said Stuart Cullum, president of Olds College. 

"Agriculture is a technology-based industry. What's important is that we don't get enamoured with the technology but we focus on the problems and challenges of agriculture and the opportunity to build value into the business of agriculture."

President of Olds College Stuart Cullum. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The College's smart farm was among the innovations on display at the two-day AgSmart showcase.

The entire farm is connected through a mesh Wi-Fi network and has stationary soil monitors, digital weather stations and wireless grain bin sensors. 

Cullum said students who work hands-on at the 2,000-acre farm have interests that include IT, robotics and automation.

One of those new, automated products on display is a driverless piece of farm equipment named Dot.

The Dot, a fully automated seeder and sprayer, at a demo in Olds, Alta. The unit sells for around $340,000 and frees up farmers to do other work while it carries out tasks like seeding and spraying. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Robert Saik, CEO of Dot Technology Corp., says the equipment was named after the inventor's mother — and it sounds like the equipment has a mother's sharp eye.

'It has the ability to "digitally see the world" through a series of cameras, he said.

"So Dot has eyes and, if it encounters anything that's not supposed to be there, it stops," Saik said. "So a lot of safety is built into Dot."

He said farmers can generate a plan for Dot, teaching it to avoid sloughs and power poles, but once it's running it can evaluate risks on its own and stop if necessary.

It's operated with a Surface Pro tablet, and can be docked with a sprayer, seed drill, fertilizer spreader and grain cart.

The Dot crop sprayer docks, as one of many extra attachments, with the main self-driving vehicle. The technology uses GPS and sensors to keep spraying accurate. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"We thought about how to address one the key issues in farming, which is a labour shortage," he said. "Dot's U-shaped platform is capable of fitting into a number of different farm implements."

Other items on the schedule included genetic selection in ranching, data management in grain storage, and using unmanned aerial vehicles to manage livestock.

Farmer Gary Weigul says the autonomous equipment has the potential to change his business. 

"With all the sensors and stuff that's on there it will be able to do the work while freeing up the individual to do other things," he said.

"It's hard to find good help …  that's what agriculture's been about for the last 100 years. Replacing labour with equipment. We've been doing that for as long as I've been farming."

With files from Dan McGarvey


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