Old MacDonald had a farm. And on this farm he had a globally positioned autonomous tractor.
An old, familiar tune, but those new lyrics may take some getting used to – especially for people who still think of farming as traditional.
The reality for today’s farmer, however, is that nothing is traditional. Climate change, a growing and hungry global population, urban residential pressures devouring arable land, and the inclination of youth to eschew farming as a career choice have left farmers needing to do more with less.
Not surprisingly, farmers are always looking for a competitive advantage: time-saving advantages, advantages leading to larger crop yields, advantages in seeding and harvesting times. That increasingly means turning to technology.
“As much as you think farming is the oldest industry in the world, it’s been evolving since day one,” says John Anderson, CEO and Founder of JCA Electronics. The Winnipeg, Manitoba firm is a leader in the design and manufacture of control systems for off-highway mobile vehicles for clients throughout North America and overseas.
“Now farming is advancing so much that a big part of our business is developing autonomous and highly automated equipment,” he explains. “Basically, the farmer of the future is going to have multiple pieces of equipment that they’re essentially controlling through a tablet from their office or truck.”
If you think autonomous vehicles are just for Uber and Google, take a look at the fields in the countryside where you may soon see new types of machinery planting, spraying and harvesting crops without drivers. JCA Electronics is at the forefront of making this happen. The award-winning innovator in precision agriculture and autonomous technology is leveraging these market opportunities and the proclivities of farmers and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to bring autonomous controls onto their equipment, revolutionizing the way farms are managed.
The benefits to the farmer are numerous, Anderson says, from improved accuracy of planting and fertilizing to monitoring soil conditions, fuel savings, and the ability to work under conditions not suitable by a human operator.
The tech-enabled equipment allows for precision farming with minimal guidance from the farmer, so farmers see reduced input costs and improved yields. It also provides a wealth of data on soil and plant conditions, which helps to determine the ideal moisture conditions for planting and when and where spraying is required. And tractor tires can be accurately positioned to minimize soil compaction and avoid growing crops. All of these advances also help with fuel efficiency and an overall better return on investment.
Another big win is the ability to continue to work in the field beyond daylight hours. Traditionally, farming was a sunrise to sunset enterprise. With the addition of autonomous technology, farm equipment can continue to plant or reap in the dark while maintaining consistency and accuracy. This is especially critical during spring planting and fall harvesting when optimal weather conditions can deteriorate.
Anderson is quick to clarify that his company is a collaborator on innovation, partnering with large and small OEMs that manufacture farming equipment. JCA’s strength is its ability to understand their vision and demonstrate to OEMs how technology can enhance their existing equipment and business. The company prides itself on its speed to proof of concept and production systems.
“We’re an expert in autonomous technology. It might be software, it might be sensors, it might be cloud services, it might be manufacturing unique electronic components, and it’s more often how all of these components need to go together to create a robust system,” Anderson explains.
He has a team of 100 employees with more then 30 engineers working in the Winnipeg and newly opened Lincoln, Nebraska offices. The expansion is a positive move, Anderson says, as it promises to not only broaden the company’s base of technical expertise, but it is also located in the heartland of U.S. agriculture.
But the foundation of the business is all about building relationships with customers. Anderson says the OEMs have a depth of confidence in JCA because his team shows them how to adapt their equipment with technology in a way that is cost-effective and delivers more efficiency to the end user.
To do that, the company is always ready to go the extra mile. JCA was approached by an innovative manufacturer, for example, who wanted autonomous controls added to a new type of vehicle with an accelerated 12-month proof of concept delivery schedule. “This wasn’t something that was just one specific application; it was a new power platform and new age type of tractor,” Anderson says.
The OEM wanted a vehicle that could work the fields without any on-board human operator and all of this from scratch – literally from concept to delivery in 12 months – with the objective to have the equipment ready to show at a farm show with thousands of industry people in attendance and eagerly observing.
JCA dedicated a dozen engineers to the project, and along with the ultimate deadline faced a series of client-specified milestones.
Anderson recalls the debut of the machine at this first show in what he termed a hugely challenging project. “We had helped them set it up at the show, they pushed the button, put all the controls down and away it went in the field. It truly established what could be done.”
He marvels at the paradigm shift occurring in modern agriculture. The shift, he says, is akin to the move from horse-powered plough to the invention of the tractor.
Farms today are massive compared to the era of the horse-drawn plough; this is necessitated by the enormous demands of a hungry planet and the need to be more competitive while complicated by the fickleness of Mother Nature. JCA is driven by the desire to deliver practical solutions. “You’ve got an individual farmer who’s constantly being squeezed to become more efficient,” Anderson says.
For Anderson, agriculture wasn’t at the top of his mind when studying engineering. His focus was on transportation and aerospace design. He had no idea that agriculture was so innovative.
It wasn’t until he was about 10 years into his working career in a variety of industries that he determined there was an opportunity for a company like JCA to partner with OEMs who wanted to innovate through the use of technology. Although agriculture is a key area of focus, JCA also works with construction, mining and forestry equipment manufacturers.
Essentially, the technology helps move equipment through the real world in a controlled and managed fashion. Taking the “bum out of the seat” and allowing an operator to run, manage and maintain a piece of equipment through a computer tablet is what JCA helps OEMs do by combining digital and physical controls.
The advantage is especially pronounced and welcomed on the larger farms that are typical in North America, but as autonomous (smaller) equipment becomes common and proven, there will not only be swarms of this equipment on these larger farms but it will have an application on smaller farms all over the world. The efficiencies are obvious, notes Anderson. “To efficiently go from point A to point B while working the ground, you’re worried about a lot of things that are kind of fundamental to agriculture; technology can now enable you to do this with minimal human involvement.”
The benefits, of course, are potentially enormous. Through the utilization of this technology, Anderson says, “we really have a feeling that we can meaningfully help feed a growing population in the world.”