Pulling an implement is the ultimate test of multitasking for most operators. While driving is a necessity, monitoring the implement's critical tasks is where an operator earns their keep. "The reason the operator is so valuable is that they're not just driving the vehicle straight or putting the crops in a certain spot," Matt explains. "They're also finding out when a seed isn't getting planted. They're finding out when a nozzle isn't spraying."
Knowing there's so much at stake on each pass, Matt and his teammate Justin believe that pioneering automation at Raven will help operators everywhere make better use of their skills. "We're really trying to make people's lives and their work more meaningful," said Justin. "The way you do that is by automating the routine tasks." But automating routine tasks is anything but ordinary. That's why Raven invests in motivated engineers like Justin and Matt.
An electrical engineer by trade, Matt started at Raven working with electrical embedded systems related to injection pumps and product control systems. Soon, Matt noticed that the tasks he considered most fun were delegated to engineers who were comfortable with heavy, math-based problems. Seeing this as an opportunity to grow, Matt took advantage of Raven's generous tuition reimbursement program and returned to school to pursue a master's degree in control systems while maintaining his full-time job.
While studying control systems, Matt saw first-hand how those algorithms applied to Raven's RS1 Steering System. "It integrates inertial sensors and GPS data. And then it has to account for machine dynamics to appropriately tell the machine where to steer to stay in a line." By combining his knowledge of control systems with his image processing classes, Matt also started to work on another groundbreaking piece of technology at Raven: VSN®.
From an engineering perspective, VSN® Visual Guidance "is an image-based system that tries to find a common trend in an image of where the rows are," Matt described. "And then in finding those rows, it's able to appropriately detect whether or not it's pointing at them, pointing down them, or aligned with them." From an operator's point of view, VSN® will reduce their workload while limiting crop damage and human error.
It's these challenges that drive engineers like Matt. And the fast-paced environment in which he gets to solve these challenges plays a huge role in his motivation. "The fact that you can take something, write software, put it on a machine, and use it all in the same day, that's an exciting thing to do." Justin agrees and adds that "most of the products we work on at Raven are tools that people use every day. It's tools that are actually helping them become more effective at feeding the world."
Justin joined the autonomous systems team over a year ago after spending time working with the Raven Hawkeye® Nozzle Control system. In part, his passion for helping farmers feed the world comes from his regular access to end-users at the nearby Raven Innovation Campus. "As engineers at Raven, we get the opportunity to go visit customers and systems in the field." By working directly with customers, Justin can directly hear how his team's solutions made someone's day better. Pair that accessibility with the tools at his disposal and there's no slowing Justin down.
The best engineers at Raven are the people who are willing to innovate, the people that are willing to figure out a way to collect data and make an unbiased decision."— Justin Krosschell, Engineering Team Lead
"We just made a huge investment in our hardware engineering test lab for doing mechanical, environmental, and electrical compliance testing," shared Justin. "That investment is allowing us to test more products simultaneously with fewer people in the lab, which is improving our throughput through tests. That level of investment is happening in our team and in our facilities to support the growth." And there's no bigger technology driving growth right now at Raven than autonomy.
"How do you take what is traditionally the perceptive engine in a tractor, the driver," asked Justin, "and start to automate those things with a computer?" The team has to solve for every little detail, like teaching radar sensors to understand the difference between discarded corn stubble and healthy crop. There's also identifying pathways to provide a smoother, less exhausting path for operators or knowing how to move in a bedded field with a unique irrigation system. "You need to make the system aware of the surroundings," explains Matt. "That creates some fun work for an engineer to solve."
In general, there are many engineers worldwide focused on autonomous vehicles. Within that faction, automating ag is clearly a niche, and therein lies the opportunity. "We are the agricultural autonomous solutions provider of the future," proclaims Matt. And while the heavily regulated automotive industry makes slow progress, Matt's team is moving more aggressively because there are fewer regulations in a field that a customer owns. But that doesn't mean there's a shortage of problems left to solve.
"The best engineers at Raven are the people who are willing to innovate, the people that are willing to figure out a way to collect data and make an unbiased decision," said Justin. Combining that determination with the desire to do whatever it takes is what teammates expect from one another. Even if that means learning a new skill on the spot to stay on top of a project. Something Matt's experienced. "There may be a time where you say, 'Hey, I know I haven't soldered a board but guess what I'm going to do today? I'm going to learn how to solder some stuff because that's what we need to do. I need to change these parts because if I don't do it, we're not going to be able to test this system on a machine when the crops are at the right height."
That's the sort of ownership, desire, and winning attitude it's going to take to pioneer an industry. To be the agricultural autonomous solutions provider of the future, you have to solve a lot of complex problems. But these are the kind of challenges that engineers like Matt and Justin live for and that hundreds of the brightest like-minded engineers will flock to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to help solve.