agtech summit

EarthSense's TerraSentia robot can drive autonomously through fields and collects data on how plants are doing throughout the growing season. Right now, the robots are mostly used by seed companies and universities, but CEO Chinmay Soman hopes to have it ready for farmers 'as soon as we can.'

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CHAMPAIGN — Farmers use significantly more technology than they did 20 years ago — from drones to detailed yield maps — but sometimes they wish it could be as easy to use as Amazon's Alexa.

“To be able to make it hands-free ... where you can just speak and it’s done and you can actually do it while you’re going through the field if you have to,” said Galva farmer Brian Corkill at this week’s AgTech Innovation Summit at the I Hotel and Conference Center, “that, to me, would be something really cool if you could figure that out.”

Corkill was part of a panel discussing ag-tech innovations and how they could be improved.

Farmers have more data than ever about their fields, but “just the simple process of data entry when you’re in the field” can be time-consuming, Corkill said.

“You have to type in the seed variety, what the seed size is, lot number and all that stuff so you can track it throughout the year,” he said. “That might take five to eight minutes typically to do that.”

That can be tedious, he said.

“You got to type it in, it takes time, and time is valuable,” he said.

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Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery co-owner Leslie Cooperband agreed.

Prairie Fruits sells cheese and gelato from its herd of goats in Urbana.

“We are still handwriting records and transcribing them into Excel spreadsheets,” she said. “We would love a system where we can just speak into our phones, ideally, and then have data created so that we can be much more in a position to evaluate changes in real time.”

Another issue: data compatibility.

While Bureau County farmer Michael Ganschow said that has improved in recent years, “there’s still a little bit of a gap that needs to be bridged there right now.

“I can kind of see ... why they don’t do that because, man, if you get that one system, you’re kind of tied to that because it can’t talk to the next one.”

The fifth annual AgTech summit brought together investors, large corporations, academics and startups for a series of panel discussions and presentations.

ACES Dean Kim Kidwell said it’s important for the agtech industry to hear from farmers.

“I love these grower panels almost more than anything because that’s where the rubber hits the road,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re addressing issues that are real to the people that use the technology.”

Kidwell said suggestions such as voice-enabled data-entry could lead the companies at the summit to pursue those ideas.

“It’s really beautiful that people are in the same space, sparking ideas,” she said. “I bet a dozen companies go home and start thinking about how do we actually use voice activation in our cabs.”

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One of the companies that presented was EarthSense, a Research Park startup founded in 2016 that uses autonomous robots to collect data from fields.

It had 37 robots in fields last year for different large companies and universities, though it’s not ready for regular farmers yet.

Right now, “we’re working with folks who really need bits not bushels,” CEO Chinmay Soman said. “They’re looking for data from their seed development fields, for example.”

Eventually, he hopes farmers can use the robots in their fields to help them understand “here’s what’s going on in this part of your field,” Soman said. “If you do such-and-such, you’ll get more yield.”

And then further down the line, “the grandchildren of these robots,” Soman envisions will “carry around like a little sprayer for fungicide or be able to pull out weeds.”

“We’re working hard to make it available to farmers as soon as we can, but for now, the technology is a little too expensive and a little early stage,” Soman said.

The cost is an issue for all agtech companies at the moment, farmer Michael Haag said during the panel when asked what problem equipment manufacturers haven’t solved yet.

“In today’s world, the economics are not really friendly in agriculture right now,” said Haag, the past president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. “There is some new cool stuff out there, but it’s gonna be a long time before it sees my farm because there’s just not a financial way to be able to provide it. And that’s on the livestock and the farming side.”