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  • CALGARY—Driverless cars won’t be roaming Canadian roads any time soon, but autonomous vehicle technology is finding an ally in the farming industry.
 
  • Farmers are warming up to autonomous vehicles, seeing the technology as a great way to increase efficiency and make up for labour shortages. But early adopters and developers have a long way to go before some regulatory and financial hurdles are cleared, ultimately paving the way for the next phase in farming innovation.
 
  • Jason Bradley, director of smart agriculture at Alberta’s Olds College, said the farming industry is facing the same kind of disruption as when tractors first began to overtake horse-drawn equipment. “It takes some time before the entire farming community sees the value in it, and then it becomes ubiquitous,” he said.
 
  • Olds College is on the first phase of its Smart Farm initiative, a project aimed at testing emerging farm technology such as data analytics and autonomous vehicles to not only train the farmers of the future, but also show today’s farmers the value of that technology.
 
  • But a 2017 Glacier FarmMedia survey of 432 farmers across Western Canada found that 75 per cent did not feel ready to adopt autonomous vehicle technology in the near future. Some of the reasons given included cost, especially for smaller farms, balanced with a skepticism about return on investment and, for some, a cultural resistance to the idea of leaving the tractor cab.
 
  • At the most futuristic end of the spectrum, major tractor companies like John Deere have developed increasingly autonomous tractors, a natural next step after the widespread use of auto-steering technology. But Alberta farmer Brian Tischler said safety concerns are holding back the commercial use of these vehicles.
 
  • Tischler developed a remote-control program called AgOpenGPS that communicates with his tractor’s automatic steering, essentially eliminating the need for a driver. The tractor is autonomous enough to stop itself if it runs into any obstacles.
 
  • The next level will be tractors that can make more complex decisions, said Tischler, though he added farmers’ skepticism of autonomous tractors is well-placed.
 
  • “Liability is a huge obstacle with a machine so large and capable of doing so much damage,” he said.
 
  • Saskatchewan farmer and engineer Norbert Beaujot of no-till seeding company SeedMaster also saw the future of farming in driverless technology. But he didn’t just see the elimination of drivers — he envisioned vehicles that didn’t need tractors at all.
 
  • “I decided early on that the tractor version (of autonomous vehicles) is obsolete,” Beaujot said. “I took it on as a project to try and design something that was ready for that new age.”
 
  • Enter DOT, a self-driving U-shaped structure that can pick up a multitude of farm implements, such as seeders. Using GPS technology, mapping and sensors, DOT can sense obstacles and stop itself, communicating remotely with the farmer’s tablet. It has both an autonomous mode and a remote control mode. On autonomous mode, Beaujot said the farmer just needs to keep an eye on DOT to make sure it’s “behaving,” as he puts it.
 
  • DOT is going to market this spring, and the company recently hired AGRI-TREND founder Robert Saik from Alberta to spearhead the launch. Beaujot said over the next few years, Saik will be working on a more robust sales structure for DOT, including complementary products.
 
  • Another area autonomous vehicle technology will become more prevalent for farming won’t be on the ground at all, but in the air. Farmers have begun using drones to gather data about their crops, analyzing and using the information to make important decisions.
 
  • Autonomous drone technology is quite advanced, explained Samantha Verlaan of Calgary aerial mapping company Skymatics. There are drones that can perform tasks on their own without anyone controlling them. But current Canadian regulations prohibit the use of drones beyond the line of vision of the user — even if the user isn’t controlling the drone’s movements.
 
  • With growing interest from farmers, Verlaan said industry is pushing for the regulation of beyond line of visual sight (BLOVS) drone technology, adding Calgary has been a leader in the development and testing of drones.
 
  • Ken Whitehead, a research associate for the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS), agreed.
 
  • “The technology is there,” Whitehead said. “We’re just waiting for the regulators to catch up.”
 
  • CIRUS was awarded $2 million in federal funding on Nov. 5, as well as additional provincial funding, to support its research into unmanned systems.
 
  • Chris Healy of Alberta agricultural data company IN-FLIGHT Data, has been at the forefront of BLOVS drone testing to help Transport Canada develop regulations. The new regulations take effect June 1; farmers will now be able to get their drone permit online, in a process that currently can take up to three months.
 
  • The transition to these drones will have a tremendous impact on how quickly farmers can collect data and make decisions, he said, allowing them to fully survey their fields in a day where before it could take a week and a half to do sample surveys.
 
  • “Timing is critical,” Healy said, “especially if you’re trying to solve challenges like disease or pests or crop damage.”
 
  • Though several farmers from Glacier FarmMedia’s survey expressed cultural reasons for their skepticism of autonomous vehicles, Tischler said he thinks the issue is much more straightforward. Simply put, farmers are running businesses, and they need to see the benefits of new technologies before they spend their money on expensive vehicles.
 
  • Beaujot said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before autonomous vehicles become more prevalent in the industry.
 
  • Those who remain skeptical, he added, may find themselves falling behind.
 
  • “It’s always painful to change, but the pains are usually rewarded.”
 
  • Rosa Saba is a reporter/photographer with Star Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba