By Tim Linden
True to technology startup folklore, Bear Flag Robotics began its life in co-founder Igino Cafiero’s garage. It was there that he began tinkering with the concept of an autonomous tractor by building a self-driving ATV (all-terrain vehicle).
It was also there that he and co-founder Aubrey Donnellan developed the concept of using the technology for the common good. “They wanted to use robotics on something to benefit society,” said Farm Operations Manager Daniel Carmichael, who was the fifth person hired and the first with farming experience. He is a fifth-generation farmer.
Bear Flag Robotics’ mission is to increase global food production and reduce the cost of growing food through machine automation. Carmichael said the overarching mission of robotics and actually all farm technology is how to do more with less. From its start in 2017, the company has participated in start-up accelerators and is a resident of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology.
It is beyond the proof-of-concept phase and is, in fact, selling its service to customers. Its go-to market strategy is as a service. Bear Flag Robotics currently leases five 370-horsepower tractors that are equipped with all the technological hardware necessary for autonomous operation. The company is planning to equip 25 more tractors in 2021. Carmichael says those five tractors are currently booked to capacity, but he recommended that potential customers contact the company soon if they want to utilize the service as new tractors are operational.
The company admittedly went after the low-hanging fruit of primary tillage to introduce the concept and prove that it works at a cost below what a grower would be paying today to receive the same service from a tractor with a driver. The Bear Flag tractor does have a driver in the cab for at least the first pass of the field for safety reasons. But as a specific piece of land is tilled, the technology on board remembers that ground and subsequent passes can be achieved autonomously.
Carmichael said it is the autonomous nature of the tractor and its ability to operate continuously that allows it to be economically viable at a cost below market. He also admits that Bear Flag has priced its service on a per acre basis at a very attractive rate to build business as it is through maximum utilization that the service gains efficiencies.
From the initial primary tillage, the tractors can now accommodate secondary tillage, which Carmichael basically described as moving through a field in a controlled traffic pattern that allows it to avoid irrigation pipe, drip tape and other obstacles. In the long run, he believes an autonomous tractor will be able to be used for virtually everything a tractor does on a farm today. He noted that spraying could be the next task adopted while planting a field will be one of the last services developed. He said growers are far less inclined to turn that farming necessity over to a driverless tractor than they are tilling an empty field. But he said updating the tractor’s capabilities will be an ongoing pursuit and likened it to the continuous updating of a smart phone, with each new model adding more features.
Carmichael acknowledged that some growers are interested in owning a tractor with autonomous capabilities and he expects that to be part of the company’s strategy in the future. But currently selling the service makes more sense.
The longtime farmer said selling the concept of this technology to growers has not been that difficult because most people are aware of autonomous automobiles, which pioneered the idea and introduced it to the general public. If a car can drive itself on a busy highway, it is not a leap to think that a tractor can do the same thing in a field. He said the grower community has shown tremendous interest in the equipment and usually a farmer only needs to sit in the cab and take a spin to “get it”. Carmichael added: “We are offering a service to help them do what they do; we don’t tell people how to farm.”