Telematics, 4 Million Lines of Computer Code and Mr. Raccoon

raccoonI enjoy driving my combine.  In fact, in this very late fall in Southwest Ontario guys are pushing the envelope as far as they can.  I had one grower tell me he drove his combine up until 1:00 AM the other night.  Sometimes you can do that in southwestern Ontario farm country, but usually tough soybean straw shuts you down early.  When you combine the skill and moxie of the experienced combine driver against wet soybean straw, there is always a sweet spot when you shut down for the night.  Everybody knows when they’re there.

The new John Deere as series combine has some 4 million lines of software code and 26 computers receiving input from 88 sensors.  As my Country Guide machinery editor colleague, Scott Garvey wrote in his recent article, “The Innovations offensive”, these new John Deere combines are smarter than the 1st space shuttles.  So just think what you could do if you had one of those new S series combines?

It is interesting to think about and I don’t want to go down the trail again about me thinking that farm machinery might have too many computers on them these days.  So let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.  When you mix 4 million lines of computer software code and 26 computers on board a combine with grime, moisture, dirt, grease, time and Mr. Raccoon, what do you get?  In my mind, I hope you get an intact 4 million lines of computer code and 26 computers working well, but I’m skeptical.  Call me crazy.

At this time of year especially in southwestern Ontario we are racing to harvest soybeans.  All of us would welcome new technology to increase our productivity especially at a time when Mother Nature is starting to think about winter.  For the most part that means bigger combines, bigger trucks, bigger wagons, bigger everything.  I eventually will get all the work done in this difficult fall but making things bigger always seems to make it easier.

However, making things bigger is not necessarily what is happening within our farm machinery industry.  Sure, we are getting some very big grain carts and some very powerful tractors and combines.  Needless to say one of the biggest buzz phrases that was brought to my attention by Scott Garvey’s article was the word “Telematics”.  Simply put, telematics refers to the wireless transmission of information to and from equipment in the field and according to many farm machinery industry sources this is where the growth lies.  In other words, more software code is on the way in our harvest window.

Of course the ultimate goal using telematics is to reduce the amount of labour required in agriculture.  This is really no different than me planting 100 acres of soybeans by myself in the spring of 2011 when as a teenager in the 1970s it took 3 guys all day to plant 50 acres.  The hope now using autonomous farm equipment is to have all the equipment talk to each other with producers only having “cursory monitoring” of the robotic equipment in the field.  So essentially you could plant all-night and all-day and harvesting the same.  The limiting factor would be your trust and the millions of lines of software code.

Much of this innovation is being pushed by smaller niche companies, which in many ways have a better grasp of what people want than the bigger players or a little guy like me.  I talked to a grower from Alberta the other day that loved all his GPS guidance systems and boom controls in this sprayer as it helped him easily spray two quarters of land after supper on a late spring evening.  He said that he could spend more time with his family.  Could you imagine if some of this new autonomous technology came along and then all you have to do is push a button and watch from his backyard?

As many of you know with my small mind I have trouble with this because it is outside the realm of “tangible benefit” that can be measured.  I have not even begun to talk about the liability issues which insurance companies will not accept without prohibitive fees.  However, when my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as flying machines and when he passed away 27 years ago they were as ubiquitous as oxygen.  So maybe I should try to expand my imagination.

I haven’t even begun to talk about 300 bushel per acre corn.  Let this be a lesson to all of us as we think ahead.  In 2011 we are constrained by what we have and how we use it.  The big challenge is to reach beyond what we know and imagine the technology of the future, which will really help us farm while improving productivity tenfold.  If that is telematics, great!  If, Mr. Raccoon wins the day by chewing through that entire conduit, it is what it is.  In the next few years our farming minds will surely be blinded by what’s coming.  It’ll be important to accept the challenge and keep an open mind.