2018 Winner: Outstanding Achievement in Agricultural Innovation sponsored by Corteva Agrisciences
Open source agriculture software excites users across the globe
Open source agricultural applications are few and far between. Brian Tischler developed and documented AgOpenGPS and AgraBot, helping farmers all over the world build low-cost precision agriculture, machine control and fully autonomous agricultural vehicle systems. This software helps farmers work collaboratively to help other farmers around the world.
What problem did you see a need to solve and how did you solve this real-world problem?
We have tall stubble. We remove the grain and we don’t touch the straw so it is hard to see where we had seeded. We have an air seeder and we have a different way of seeding. But you couldn’t really tell where the air seeder had gone and so I thought, “Well, we have a GPS, we have a position, we should be able to read that information.”
I had previously done a bunch of game programming in 3D so I thought I could use that same technology added to my GPS position and, just like in a game, tell where I’d been and mark it accordingly. That worked pretty good. At the same time, if I know where I’ve been and I know what I’ve seeded, I can turn the air seeder off and on. It became what’s called mapping and section control and that’s how AgOpenGPS all started.
What has been the impact?
You can buy pre-made commercial systems, but they’re anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000. So I posted my project in agricultural forums and I made the code open source and put it up on GitHub. People from all over the world started downloading. I thought, “This is pretty cool.”
They started asking, “Can you write auto–steer, where you can actually steer the tractor?” I thought, “Oh that’s impossible, you can’t do that.” But I got to thinking about it and guys gave some suggestions and I gave it a whirl and sure enough I developed a steering system. It grew from feedback to include repetitive curved lines and turning around at the end of the field. I just kept writing. Where it is now, it’s a fully autonomous self-driving tractor and it’s all open source.
Originally when I searched for any sort of open source agriculture information, you couldn’t find anything. I like to think I gave that a kick-start and then other people started posting other projects.
There are literally people all over the world now using AgOpenGPS for everything from basic mapping, to auto–steer, to auto-headlands. Guys in vineyards are using it, there’s a dairy farmer in Indiana using it to feed little cows and all over the world people are using this technology for all sorts of neat things.
Has being in Alberta helped you find success?
The Alberta advantage is the fact that it’s given me lots of experience with commercial software that I can build the autonomous ideas from and have the room and the place and access to parts to create the system. It’s also having access to machine shops and ideas and people to translate ideas into something concrete.
Alberta is good because we are very innovative, we know how to build stuff and we know how to take ideas and make them usable.
Who have been your major supporters?
My inspiration is seeing people all over the world take the software, use it, provide feedback and say, “Hey, can you do that? Hey, this is really cool. Can we do this?” I really feed off that.
All along the whole process I’ve been explaining how I do things and the education aspect is something that’s really important to me. I think it is something that’s absolutely missing in agriculture, not only in Alberta but all over the world. Generally (the technology is) all so proprietary, so being able to share it with people and then it helps them come up with ideas, it just all feeds upon itself. My inspiration is, quite frankly, the world.
What are the plans for the future?
The plan is certainly in the direction of more autonomous robotics. One of the challenges that we face in agriculture today is weed resistance where we use herbicides to control the plants we do not want to grow in a field. We really rely on herbicides to prevent erosion and all the terrible things that come along with tillage, but plants are smart and they will have the ability to metabolize those herbicides and they won’t work. One of the areas that I’m really pushing forward in is robotic weeding, using strictly a mechanical approach where the thing just goes along and removes everything but the crop. That could completely eliminate herbicides.
One thing that is still yet to come is a repository for all this open source agricultural information. I’ve been trying to push universities and colleges and farm organizations to host a web-based repository for this information where people all over the world could share their ideas in one place.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
It’s kind of funny reading the list and seeing MD/PhD, PhD, farmer from Mannville and then PhD. When I look at the other finalists I think it’s a really cool group of people and I feel exceptionally honoured to be a part of that list. I know that the criteria for an award is quite specific and you need a good project, so I’m happy that it’s being recognized as a good project and a step forward.