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A Q&A with Robert Saik: It’s Time to Get Big or Go Home for Agriculture Robotics

May 21, 2019

Robotics has been touted as a way to address some of the biggest issues in agriculture, namely when it comes to an ongoing labor shortage. Fifty-six percent of farmers in California alone have been unable to find enough workers in the past five years, according to a new report from the California Farm Bureau Federation. The labor shortage is even more surprising in light of data showing that 90% of farmers have raised wages in recent years in an attempt to attract a more reliable and qualified workforce.

An increasing number of startups are innovating robotics-based solutions for nearly every segment of the food supply chain, from weed pulling robots out in the orchards to food safety-focused machines. The rapid development of robotic technologies across the food supply chain was noticeable in 2018, as investment into Farm Robotics & Equipment increased 56% year-over-year through 83 deals, according to AgFunder’s 2018 AgriFood Tech Investing Report.

But for Robert Saik, CEO of DOT Farm Solution Retail and a seasoned agtech entrepreneur, one of the things he keeps seeing is a lack of scale. That is until he saw what Norbert Beaujot, inventor of Dot had built. Norbert, a farmer, inventor and owner of Seed Master, named his full-sized farming system invention Dot after his mother because she was someone capable of managing many tasks on the farm. Today the Dot Technology Corp, the developer of the Dot IP, is led by CEO, Leah Olsen while Saik heads the commercialization side.

“I think the biggest difference between Dot and most of what you see for robotics in agriculture is that Dot is big. It’s about pure scale. Most of what you see in agriculture robotics are small scale robots. This is a full-fledged, full-sized, autonomous robot for broadacre agriculture,” Saik told AgFunderNews. “One of the things we struggle with when we talk to people about Dot is that they don’t realize the size of the robot. For instance, the Dot Ready Connect sprayer by Pattison is 1,600 gallons with 120-foot booms. The Dot Ready Seed Master air seeder is 300 bushels and is 30 feet wide. This is full-size farm equipment”

The commercially available robot is a U-shaped, diesel-powered hydraulic platform that is equipped with seeding implements and has the capability to be paired with other Dot-ready attachments such as sprayers or fertilizer spreaders or grain carts. The startup currently has units in full-scale testing on farms located throughout the company’s Saskatchewan home base.

Saik is no stranger to the agtech world; he exited his former company to Trimble. He founded the Agri-Trend group of companies in 1997, comprised of a network of independent coaches specializing in agronomy, precision farming, crop marketing, and farm business management. Coaches were supported by a team of science specialists comprised of over 30 academic experts providing in-house research, training and insight support for both the coaching network and the Agri-Data Solution platform, a proprietary farm data management tool. Trimble acquired the assets in 2015, including Agri-Data which is now part of Trimble Ag Software.

Saik is also gearing up to launch a new book called Food 5.0 – How We Feed the Future that reflects the culmination of his storied career in the agriculture technology space. Focusing on broadacre food production, it will take the reader through five iterations of agriculture including what Saik sees as the current era where chemistry, biotech, and other technological advancements are converging.

He’s also launching a new startup aimed at connecting farmers with the expertise they need called AGvisorPRO. “AGvisorPRO is the complete uberization of knowledge and wisdom, connecting farmers to experts in real time. I still believe that farmers need access to independent knowledge and wisdom. This company will be a new way of looking at how we connect those farmers with independent advisors who need to get paid for the knowledge they have. It will help us solve problems at the farm level,” Saik explains.

We spoke with Saik recently ahead of his new book launch to learn more about Dot and whether robotics in agriculture will ever achieve the lofty dreams that many have projected for the space.

Why do we need Dot?

We need Dot for three main reasons, I think. First, most farmers will tell you that the pinch point on any operation is qualified labor. It’s getting harder and harder for farmers living in remote areas to find qualified operators.

Second, it’s getting harder and harder to attract young people into agriculture. They aren’t so excited about being trapped in the cab of tractor or sprayer for weeks on end as it self-drives up and down the field and they monitor computer screens. It’s like being trapped in a glass cage. The boredom gets severe. When you talk to young ppl about running and operating a Dot robotics fleet on the farm and making that whole thing work autonomously they are excited about that and see the potential.

Third, the cost of equipment is crippling for farmers. Almost anything you look at these days in terms of a new equipment acquisition is a half-million to a million dollars, so capital cost of equipment is a real burden to farmers and we think we can alleviate big chunk of that with Dot.

I’d also add that Dot can help combat compaction. A lot of equipment is large and puts lots of weight on the soil resulting in compaction that makes it harder to grow crops. Dot is relatively light and can get overland day or night and doesn’t have to carry so much weight.

How far along is Dot in its commercialization journey?

Dot is commercial. The first number of units have been sold to farmers in Saskatchewan and as we speak they are operating in the field. The Dot unit itself costs about $260,000. It offers 175-horsepower, a Tier 4 Cummins engine, and four hydrostatically driven wheels. It can easily dock with other implements. The Dot-ready implements are offered at various prices. The sprayer, for example, is roughly $140,000.

What are some of the challenges that you are facing?

The challenges that the team is tackling are really exciting. The ability to guide a robot or any implement up and down a field is something that we’ve tackled. Farms are doing it today. The ability to generate boundary maps, shapefiles, obstacle maps and something that includes gullies and ditches – or school zones as we call them – so that the machine slows down is fairly straightforward.

Simultaneously, we have to build a high level of safety into Dot and then eventually machine learning and AI has to come into play. We have to make sure Dot can see, which involves the integration of lidar, radar, and photometrics. If a tire starts to spin, she has to be able to stop. A tree may fall down that wasn’t there when the mapping took place. If Dot comes up to that tree, she has to stop and alert the operator who could be in town or anywhere. The person will have to move Dot or get rid of the tree. In the future, what has to happen is that the Dot unit has to be able to recognize the obstacle that wasn’t programmed into the system and decide what to do about it. She needs to make a plan to get around that tree and reconstruct a path plan that takes advantage of the new information.

Those are fairly wicked problems and exciting challenges. It really does bring home the whole concept of what AI and machine learning will mean in farming because we have to eventually equip Dot to make decisions.

What do you wish investors understood better about robotics in agriculture? How do investors respond to Dot?

I think investors are starting to get a handle on the opportunities that exist with technology like Dot. Again, I think that most of what we have seen in the marketplace is fairly small scale. I believe we potentially have a unicorn in our hands with Dot because the platform is unique. It’s addressing a space that most people don’t understand, which is broadacre agriculture. There are many investment opportunities for Dot because we provide opportunities to partner with Dot-ready implement manufacturers. We offer a strategy for shortline manufacturers to have an autonomous strategy, too, and to get in the marketplace. New Leader makes a 16 section variable rate fertilizer spreader that is DOT ready. It’s highly accurate and can take advantage of precision ag prescriptions.

Farmers understand the cost of production and the capital costs associated with equipment. They understand the constraints with qualified farm labor. Like all tech adoption, we are going to see the typical curve of early adopters and innovators as well as late-stage adopters and lagers.

What are some Do’s and Don’ts you learned in your role at AGRI-TREND?

I didn’t spend enough time cultivating relationships with the venture capital crowd. I was pretty naive. I was in Canada running Agri-Trend, but I didn’t have a handle on the appetite for venture capital investment in the agricultural space. I would have had someone coach me and spent a little more time in that space.

I used to hear all the time about someone building the “first” online ag database for farming; well, we had done that back in 2001. A lot of the stuff you see today like variable-rate spraying we had done and won awards for years ago but nobody knew. If I learned anything, I would have told the world a little more about what we were doing.

I think we made a good choice with Trimble. They treated us honorably and I had no qualms around what we did there. They have done a good job with Agri-Data, but Agri-Trend was not really a good match for Trimble. They are more of an engineering and technical technology company and Agri-Trend was more focused on humanistic relationships with coaches and farm customers. There was some disappointment and if I could do it over again I would go deeper and harder to know that the cultural match was really strong.

What’s next for Rob?

In many ways, I feel that I am just getting started.  My mind is constantly looking for ways to bring technology into agriculture.  I am good at connecting the dots – pun intended and figuring out how new technology can make a difference in our industry.  I am interested in spectroscopy and am advising a few companies on how to maneuver in the ag space.

I am really excited about the team that will run AGvisorPRO and of course I believe Dot is a potential billion-dollar opportunity.  The prairie winters seem to give you lots of time to think so it’s exciting to see data platforms, precision ag companies, air seeders and now robotics coming out of this area.  I am thrilled to be a part of this eco-system.

What’s next for DOT?

We think there is an education component for Dot. Mechanically speaking, it isn’t that complicated. The Tier 4 Cummins engine and other mechanical aspects are fairly basic and really solid.

Dot’s software engineering and programming are extensive and very sophisticated. One of the first things that will have to happen is building a curriculum for farmers that can help them set up and run Dot. We started working with some agricultural colleges including the techgronomist program at Olds College in Alberta to create a Dot curriculum for robotics in farming.

The other side of this is that a lot of support for Dot can be done remotely. The other idea is to have Dot farm solution specialists that would work with a farmer. I think that building a new way to support Dot farmers technically is going to be important. We are looking at how to provide instantaneous connectivity between Dot and technical support.  I am hoping that AGvisorPRO will be a part of the technical support solution for Dot.

Both Dot and AGvisorPRO will be at the Ag in Motion Show this July in Saskatoon, SK.

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