Robo farm: AI machine 'DOT' comes to an Ontario farm for the first time
Haggerty Creek in Chatham-Kent is the first farm in Ontario to purchase DOT
Anyone driving past Haggerty Creek in Bothwell during the past few days has likely seen an unusual and possibly unfamiliar piece of agricultural equipment.
That's because the farm became the first such facility in Ontario to purchase and receive a machine called "DOT."
The device itself is marketed as a built-in-Canada autonomous farming platform, first unveiled at the 2018 Precision Agriculture Conference in London, Ont.
Chuck Baresich is a farmer and the general manager of Haggerty Creek. He recently spoke with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about DOT, as well as what it will means for production at his facility.
How would you describe DOT?
DOT is a four-wheel power unit. It's about the size of a large truck, like a straight truck. And it carries various attachments. In this case, we've got a fertilizer spreader on the back of it.
So how does it work?
The way it works is that it has a C-shaped power unit and you attach a spreader onto it and then you trailer the machine to the field.
We have the field mapped out … [using a process] we call geofencing. We geofence the boundaries so that it can't leave that designated area.
Once we do that, we assign what's called a mission to it, to say how do we want this field covered? How do we want it spread? Where do you want it to go, not to go, that kind of thing and how fast.?
Then we fill it with fertilizer and essentially — we hit the play button and away it goes.
You map out its route ahead of time, but what if there's an animal or a person that gets in the way? Can it sense that and stop?
There's a couple of ways. There's a tripwire on it, so that if something comes in contact with it, it stops. And it stops fast. I tell you.
Then there's a camera on it. And as well I'm watching it … Not just myself, we're watching it the whole time as well.
It is new technology. So trust me, I do not want it running over a person or a dog or a deer.
How long have you had it in use?
We just got it last week. With the COVID-19 situation, the delivery was delayed. We were hoping to have it in April. But this is the way things go. We got it last Tuesday and we've been using it every day that it hasn't been raining.
What does something like this cost?
It's around half a million dollars.
Is this actually cheaper than having people do this work?
It's not really about being cheaper, it's about being more efficient.
When you have someone driving the machine, you have a person there all the time. Here we have a person there all the time, so we're not really saving any labour cost.
But when you aren't driving the machine, you can actually be watching what the machine is doing, so you can be paying attention to what kind of spread job it is doing.
You can be planning your next field. A lot of my staff that operate the machines also do sales and other activities, so they can be talking to a customer, they can be doing other things, rather than just steering a machine up and down the field.
What you're saying is this could potentially free up someone else to do other kinds of work. Is that right?
That's correct. For example, we're spreading lime [on Thursday] and it's really nice when you're spreading lime to send two people to the field. One person to run a payload and the other person to drive the machine.
But I very rarely have that second person available. They're always doing something else. And so in this case, we only need the one person.
The same person can run the loader and operate DOT unit at the same time.
How does it feel to be the first farmer to use this device in the province?
It's exciting and fun, but scary at the same time.
It's new technology. The components on the DOT unit are fairly standard components which helps to alleviate my fear a little bit.
But it's something new and learning the processes, about planning the fields out and where is it going to drive and how fast do I want it to drive and those kinds of things, is something that we're not used to.
Do you get the sense that other farmers are going to want to take a similar path here?
I think there's lots of interest in it, just based on the number of people who have come to look at it.
There's lots of interest in autonomy and in agriculture in the crop side of things, because the tasks that we tend to do are … important tasks, but they're a little bit monotonous tasks.
And there's always something more valuable you could be doing with your time.
WATCH | DOT autonomous farming platform in motion:
It's fun to sit in the seat of a tractor for the first 20 minutes … but then then beyond that 20 minutes, it gets old fast.
The other thing too is that the DOT unit, it drives the speed that I want it to drive, so it doesn't drive too fast. It doesn't drive too slow.
It turns the corners consistently and evenly. There's things about it that actually improve the process for the farmers that are using it.
You often hear people express concerns that robots will replace human labour. Do you think there are farmers out there that worry those kinds of concerns when it comes to DOT?
There probably is. I don't see it only because we don't … an excess of labor that we're trying to get rid of.
We're still looking to hire people and do things.
And let's you don't buy a DOT unit. If you go and you buy a traditional self-propelled spreader, they cost the same or more.
So the number of people that you can hire that have the skills to operate those kinds of machines are not increasing. We're not seeing more of those people.
But there's lots of people who can operate a tablet, watch a drone go up and down the field. When we're driving around the yard, we use a joystick — almost like a flying remote controlled helicopter.
And there's lots of people who have that skill set, who can operate the electronic side. So it actually expands our labour pool a little bit more than it contracts it.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview below:
With files from Afternoon Drive