Post Falls man unveils farm drone technology
Maker asserts self-guided equipment will feed future
Dave Farb, CEO and founder of Farb Guidance Systems Inc., of Post Falls, says he believes his company’s technology that guides unmanned farming equipment will help feed the world.
Farb contends the land-drone technology will free farmers from the confines of their tractors, enabling them to be more productive.
The guidance system operates the equipment, while the farmer can monitor and control it remotely from an office-based computer, a laptop, a smartphone, or other portable Web-enabled device, he says.
“It gives time back to the farmer,” Farb says. “Farmers don’t need to be on the tractor.”
The technology also makes operating equipment safer and more cost effective, while reducing environmental impacts, he claims.
Farb unveiled the guidance system last month at the Idaho Technology Council’s Capital Connect Conference, in Boise.
Farb Guidance Systems is based at 2323 N. Highway 41, in Post Falls.
Farb says the company already has a handful of orders and has scheduled its first deliveries in early 2016.
The initial equipment platform for the guidance system is a multiterrain version of the Caterpillar skid steer, although Farb says the guidance system also works with other platforms.
He says he chose to start out with the system on a skid steer because “it’s a familiar, robust, multipurpose tool that costs under $100,000,” compared with a modern, full-sized tractor that can easily top $300,000 in price.
The skid-steer platform with a full guidance system starts at around $85,000, and multiple configurations will be available for under $100,000, he says.
“For about the price of a pickup, you can try this technology,” Farb says. “It’s not a big risk.”
If the farmer can be free from riding in the cab of a tractor, it’s more cost effective to have multiple smaller machines rather than one large one, Farb claims. He adds that the guidance system enables machinery to work at all hours enabling the farmer to monitor and guide multiple machines with controls in the palm of a hand.
The system will be adaptable for multiple brands of farming equipment, starting in the first quarter of 2016, Farb says.
The guidance system’s application won’t be limited to tractors, Farb says, adding that the company is working on a hay and straw baler that can drive itself.
Farb asks, “Why does a tractor power a baler? Because that’s what the farmer has.”
He contends, however, that a standard-sized tractor often is overpowered for such a use.
“It’s more cost effective to put a propulsion system with self-guidance technology on a baler,” he says.
The heart of the system is in the proprietary software developed by Farb Guidance Systems.
The guidance system taps into standard electronic-control components of modern farm equipment, and currently uses off-the-shelf hardware including antennas and signal boosters.
Farb says the company plans to develop proprietary components that likely would be assembled in the Inland Northwest.
Farb, his brother Bill, and a handful of stockholders own the company, which has four employees, not including the brothers.
He says he expects Farb Guidance System will be profitable within a year.
Farb grew up on family farm in Illinois and has a background in machine tooling and software development.
He developed a computer-aided design system, which went from a startup to what he claims was one of the largest independent software vendors for Hewlett-Packard Co. in the 1980s.
He sold the company and later founded Turtle Back Log Homes LLC., a Wisconsin company that uses computed numeric technology to fit logs together tightly in log-home construction.
With favorable commodity prices a decade or so ago, Farb and his brother focused on the family farm in Illinois.
“We got a GPS system and were stunned the industry hadn’t gone further with that technology and what it could do,” he says. “In less than two years, we worked out a guidance system.”
On a modern farm tractor, farmers already spend much of their time watching electronic components.
“There are at least three monitors in the cab today,” Farb says. “The question is: Why is the farmer still sitting in the tractor?”
He contends self-guided equipment will be safer than manually operated equipment.
Farb says most serious farm accidents happen to equipment operators.
Indeed, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says tractor accidents account for 125 farm deaths a year in the U.S., making tractors the single biggest farm danger.
“Why put people’s lives at risk by riding on equipment,” Farb says.
Farb Guidance Systems is working on at least one platform with no operator cab, seat, steering wheel, or onboard gauges.
That could lead to big savings in cost and resources, he says, adding that about a third of the cost of manually driven equipment is for operator items.
The guidance system is getting good reception from farmers in the Inland Northwest, which is serving as the company’s “real-world testing ground,” Farb asserts.
Farmers don’t have to know how to program computers to use the guidance system, Farb says.
Farb Guidance Systems will supply consultants to help map the farmer’s land and set up the system.
“Our person sits down and goes through the fields and operations and consults with the farmer,” Farb says. “The farmer makes the decisions.”
The software sets parameters and the monitoring device shows an image of what the equipment is going to do, he says.
The technology tracks fuel usage, predicts when equipment should be refueled, and wirelessly notifies the farmer or appropriate contact.
The technology does the same with fertilizers, sprayers, and, equipment diagnostics.
“When the equipment doesn’t know what to do, it notifies the farmer or manager and lets them make the decision,” Farb adds.
He says the guidance system isn’t that different from technology that put people on the moon.
“It controls equipment from remote locations,” he says. “When they shot a rocket to the moon, there wasn’t anyone sitting there steering it.”
Farb founded Farb Guidance Systems, in Post Falls, in 2012.
John Bruce, a vice president at Farb, says Kootenai County and the state of Idaho are embracing the opportunity to be a center for developing unmanned vehicles.
Bruce says Idaho aggressively pursued Farb Guidance Systems, while other potential locations for the company were leery of being home to such drone-like technology.
“These drones will feed people rather than kill them,” Farb points out.
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