Daniel Carmichael, Farming Operations Manager with Bear Flag Robotics, joins host Tony Kramer to talk about the company, the AI technology available today, and its acquisition by John Deere.
Tune into this insightful episode as Tony and Daniel talk about what's ahead in the industry.
Additional Resources for our listeners:
Learn more about Bear Flag Robotics. Visit: bearflagrobotics.com/
You can find past podcast episodes by visiting: www.rdoequipment.com/resources/podcasts
Have precision ag questions? We have the answers. Find a specific channel dedicated to answering your precision technology questions: Precision Ag Answers bit.ly/3eDQQYb
View the entire transcript here:
Tony Kramer: Hi, I'm Tony Kramer with RDO Equipment Company. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the Agriculture Technology Podcast. Every day there are phenomenal advancements being made in the field of agriculture technology. RDO Equipment Company is a leader in agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technology and is here with industry experts bringing the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere.
Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 153, and today we are going to be talking about Bear Flag Robotics. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to the podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many podcasting apps that we're streaming this out to such as Apple's Podcast app, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud, as well as many others. While you're out there, drop us a review. We'd love to hear what you think about the show.
Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyk. Now with that, let's get back to the show. I am very excited to welcome on Daniel Carmichael, who is the Farming Operations Manager with Bear Flag Robotics. Thank you for joining me on the show today Daniel. To get started, let's hear a little bit more about you and your background, and how you got involved in this industry.
Daniel Carmichael: Hey, Tony, thanks for having me. Brief background would be born and raised in the Midwest in Northern Illinois, just outside of Rochelle. Family farming operation, Maplehurst Farms were grain elevator and egg service, egg retail company. That's the start. I went to school, got a technical degree and worked for a bit out of school for AT&T, and then came back to the operation in 2018, spent 11 years learning the business on the farm and farming. The service component was a big part of my life and upbringing. That's a quick background on me.
Tony Kramer: Wonderful. Midwestern boy born and raised, and now you're out in sunny California on that West Coast. Definitely a different environment out there in California. Bear Flag Robotics, this name has been in the news recently. There's been a lot of talk about Bear Flag Robotics. We'll get into that. We will talk about the recent changes there with Bear Flag Robotics. Daniel, I just want to learn more about what and who Bear Flag Robotics is. Why don't you start out by telling our listeners just what is Bear Flag Robotics?
Daniel Carmichael: Bear Flag Robotics is a automation company. We're focused on developing the technology to make farming equipment, tractors, specifically, automated, and doing that we have a service component of the business, a service side of the business. Then we have the engineering side. They two work very closely hand in hand together to develop the technology. The important thing to call out is that we're working with growers and farmers every day to develop this technology.
The company got its start in 2017. Our co-founders, Igino Cafiero and [unintelligible 00:03:41] worked together in college and have both done some very big things with different startups around technology, and started out looking at mining projects, what automation can help if mining. Igino's family is in mining. That's where it started. From there, it went to the tree nut side of things. We had our first 250 horsepower tractor working in orchards. Then from there, we really nailed it down to these high horsepower machines and tillage. That's where we found the best fit for autonomy and starting up the operation side.
Tony Kramer: That leads me right into my next question, Daniel. What technology-- It's obviously Bear Flag Robotics. It's right there in the name. What technology-- Of course, you said it started in the mining industry and then the cofounders of the company worked their way into agriculture. What type of technology are you offering for the agriculture industry?
Daniel Carmichael: As it sits today, we're offering tillage as a service. It's very basic, but it's very needed. If you look at the labor issues that California has, if you have somebody leaving the industry, there's not a long line of people there to replace them. The wedge has been solving growers labor issues by offering basically tillage as a service. We've deployed a fleet of machines in different areas here across California that do nothing but your bed prep, your tillage, your deep ripping, day in and day out, and especially crops, mostly.
Tony Kramer: This service that you're offering, or this fleet that you have deployed, these are 100% autonomous machines, correct?
Daniel Carmichael: No, they're-- When we say [unintelligible 00:05:54] we're very careful about how we word that because there's always a human brain attached to these machines. We have low latency video feeds coming off the tractors. There's always someone viewing the tractors. What we provide today is a way to control and view multiple machines at one time. We make it very clear that there's always a human brain attached to that machine. We know exactly what's going on out there.
Tony Kramer: As far as the technology and the autonomy of the tractor, what all goes into that system?
Daniel Carmichael: A number of things go into the system, most importantly, is the perception system, and the time of flight sensors. We have radars, lighters, and perception cameras that give you a 360-degree view of the tractor, for number one for safety, but you can also use those same systems to start looking at job efficacy and making sure the machine is doing what it should be doing, and then relaying alerts back to that operator. Then of course, along with the perception system, there's the compute system that sits inside the cab.
Tony Kramer: You have two different ends or two different pieces of the puzzle that bring it together. Then as far as machine compatibility, is this something that down the road in the future that we'll be able to-- I should say, near future. Can this go on any machine, or are you guys working with specific machines at this point?
Daniel Carmichael: At this point, we're [unintelligible 00:07:36], but that will be the goal that we can utilize older machines for this technology.
Tony Kramer: Now going into the next thing, you talked about the technology that's on the outside of the tractor, and you have the compute system on the inside of the tractor. What all goes into the machine control? How you deploy one of these tractors to go out and do to disk or rip a field? How does that all look? How do those machines get deployed?
Daniel Carmichael: That's a good question. Right now, we have a whole staff of some very talented operations professionals, guys with AG degrees. They understand farming, to begin with, and they're interfacing with the customer directly to learn and understand how they want their machine to work. We make a very big point to not tell farmers how to farm. We want to learn from our customers. It's all of their implements, it's, of course, their ground, and we are farming it using the tractor just as they would. It's a process of, number one, getting their implements, understanding the characteristics of each implement, and how they want it to behave in the field.
Then it's a mapping function, mapping out the operation, the boundary, the obstacles. Then it's simply just a path planning function. The exciting thing about the path planning is that we can give them a lot of actionable data before we even go out to the field on efficiency and projections of how long it would take and what kind of resources it's going to use to do the job. Then we can, of course, report that back after the field's done and make our system better and smarter.
Tony Kramer: You get the machine to the field, you hook up to the customers implement, you understand what they want, you create that path, which I think is really cool, similar to what a lot of autonomous UAVs are doing today. In AG, you create that flight plan or that drive plan. You can see ahead of time-- You were saying the efficiency and how many turns the tractors going to make to get across the field. I would imagine that some of that information you can make educated decisions based off of it, and maybe adjust what you're doing or adjust some of the parameters. Now, once that machine is deployed and moving in the field, what control or viewability do you have with that thing?
Daniel Carmichael: You have complete control over the vehicle. You can change how the implement behaves in real-time as it's going along. That's important to point that out. The path itself is fixed. You can do small movements. Looking ahead to the roadmap, there's a lot of things we can improve upon there. Yes, the big things are is that you can change it, implement characteristics on the fly if needed. Again, looking back at the implement library, and what you have, the important thing is we look at the growers, and it's some of the issues that have an implement setup, we know exactly how it was set up last time on this piece of ground and how it was used, the history tells a really great story on how things should be set up and use in the future. That helps us out immensely.
Tony Kramer: On those same lines of what kind of control you have of the machine, the big question that I'm sure a lot of people are asking is-- We were talking, and I find it really neat what you guys are able to do, we were talking before the podcast, safety, what kind of safety precautions have been implemented into this system, whether it be the safety of the equipment itself or the actual safety of someone driving by on the road or things like that? What type of systems have been put into place to make sure that this is a truly safe system to be operating out in a field?
Daniel Carmichael: Yes, safety is number one priority for us at Bear Flag. It's a conversation we have daily with not only the ops folks in the field every day but engineers, we really pride ourselves on safety. It starts, Tony, with a procedure. Before we even start talking about the tractor itself, it's the customer ready for autonomy. What do things look like in their operation, to begin with. It's working with those customers develop a safety plan that meets their needs and meets the needs that Bear Flag can provide. It works with our system because we have some very hard requirements on not allowing people within the field boundaries, for instance. That's a big no no.
We want to make sure that we can keep people out so that we don't have anybody around the tracker. There's a lot of things that the tracker can do, and sense around it. We want to make sure that nobody's even around there to have that issue arise. We do a lot of things like for instance, there's a speaker system on these trackers that announces everything that it does so that people are aware of it. Along with that, we can put sirens and annoying sounds through that speaker to make sure that nobody wants to be around it so you don't have onlookers or people around it.
That's number one, making sure we have the procedures in place that people know how the machine works, how it's operated down to everybody on that property or everybody on that farm. Along with that, then we start talking about the perception system, what it sees, what it can detect, what obstacles are around it, and how it behaves. We make a joke about it. It's easier stuff to tracker than it is to start it and that's by design.
Along with John Deere system itself, we have a separate estab system that's completely redundant and separate from the machine itself so that we have available at all time in a heartbeat between the two so that if ever loose connections, it stops automatically. This has been the work the last two years of operating. It's such a new technology, such a new field that there's a lot of unknowns. The discovery process and working with these machines every day has really got us to a great place on how [unintelligible 00:14:25] looks on a farm.
Tony Kramer: I know that's always a big question when it comes to autonomous farming or semi-autonomous farming is the safety factor. We're working with very large equipment doing a lot of dangerous things. It's awesome to hear that Bear Flag Robotics has always put safety on the forefront and made sure that the systems are designed to be safe and to really watch out and be aware of what's going on.
Great to hear that that is built into the system and it's a priority. Now, the last thing I want to talk about here, Daniel, I teased it on the front end of the episode, Bear Flag Robotics, the name has been in the news a little bit recently, but at the beginning of August, I believe there was an announcement made. Tell us a little bit more about the John Deere announcement that was made?
Daniel Carmichael: We're excited to be acquired by John Deere. We joke and say, "It's jet fuel and our tank now," because we can do a lot of things that we wouldn't have otherwise been able to do or would have taken us a long time to do so. Yes, excited to make that announcement that we're part of the Deere family now. The technology isn't really the whole story there, though. It's much more about the talent and the fact that Bear Flag was in the market that was, I think, really appealing to Deere and the team there. It's exciting, and we certainly are happy to be part of the Deere team.
Tony Kramer: RDO Equipment as a John Deere dealership, we were very excited to hear this announcement and John Deere's acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics. I want to extend congratulations to you guys. That's a big accomplishment for any business to get the opportunity to be acquired by an organization, a company like John Deere. We at RDO are very excited to see where John Deere and where Bear Flag Robotics are going to take this world of autonomous farming. Now, if somebody wants to learn more about Bear Flag Robotics, where can they go, who can they talk to?
Daniel Carmichael: That's the best way to find out more about Bear Flag is just to go to our website, bearflagrobotics.com, and sign up for the newsletter there. We've got quarterly newsletters that we'll be going out to update people on our progress and excited to be in different states here really soon. We'll be working with growers, and we'll be releasing everything as we can. That'd be the best way for the website.
Tony Kramer: Awesome. I just want to thank you, Daniel, for taking the time out of your day to sit down with me and talk a little bit about Bear Flag Robotics and what you guys are doing out there in California. It's a very neat, a very unique element being brought into the AG industry and moving forward with more technology, more autonomy, and things like that. It's definitely where we are going with the AG industry. To see Bear Flag Robotics, and now John Deere, really is on the forefront of that, it is very exciting for the industry. Thanks again for doing this.
Daniel Carmichael: Thank you, Tony. Thrilled to be here.
Tony Kramer: Thanks again for tuning in to another episode. If you have questions about the technology and products discussed or have ideas about future episodes, please leave them in the comments below. You can also subscribe to RDO's videos youtube channel and be in the know about each episode or tune in on any streaming service. Thanks again for listening.