Stress Buster

Study finds that sprayer operators are significantly less stressed when using Raven’s VSN® Visual Guidance system to drive in their crop fields compared to driving in fields manually.

Since debuting in 2019, Raven’s VSN® Visual Guidance system has allowed operators to focus on the most important aspects of spraying to achieve the most effective applications possible while allowing technology to navigate the tight rows of their crops to avoid crop damage. The VSN, which can be implemented from the time a crop is a few inches post-emerge up to nearly a full canopy, has been a game-changer for several reasons. Most importantly, it has taken the pressure off operators to precisely guide their machines through crop rows that aren’t much wider than the tires on their tractors.

Let’s just say the VSN, which utilizes a non-contact stereo vision camera to navigate row crops, has removed the “white” from the white-knuckle manual drive that comes with spraying acres of crops for long periods of time. Raven knew this anecdotally after gathering feedback from operators shortly after the VSN debuted. Now, the company has the data to back up the stories after conducting a study last year.

Four male professional sprayer operators participated in this study to determine if using the VSN reduces sprayer operators’ stress levels compared to when they are steering manually. Each operator performed his job duties normally in GPS-guidance planted fields at his self-selected speed, except to drive some passes manually and some passes with VSN in the same field. Each operator wore an Empatica E4, a wristband the size of a smart watch, which measured skin conductance. These calculations indicated when a stressful event occurred during operation, as changes in skin conductance result from increases in sweat gland activity. The steering type and stressful events per minute were calculated for each pass.

Fifty-one passes in six fields were analyzed (23 manual, 28 VSN). The study found that operators using VSN had a significant reduction – 48% lower – in stressful events per minute compared to when they were steering manually. For reference, the average automobile driver had a 24% reduction in stressful events per minute when going from city (more stressful) to highway (less stressful) driving, according to Raven.

“I had been hearing subjectively and qualitatively from our customers that the VSN reduces stress,” says Travis Burgers, a mechanical research engineer for Raven who led the study. “And now we’ve shown objectively and quantitatively that this product reduces stress and has had a big impact on our customers in that area.”

Operators Can Focus

Tia Muller, a sales engineer for Raven, says operators have embraced the technology because it enables them to focus on the task at hand – spraying – whether it’s chemicals, fertilizer, or something else.

“The applicator is in the field to do a job, and that job is not to drive through rows of crops,” Muller says. “Whatever they are applying, they know they need to do a good job of applying it. The VSN gives them the opportunity to relax when it comes to steering so they can focus on the application. They can pay attention to the quality of the spray.”

Because they don’t have to continually watch where they are going, operators can ensure that everything is functioning correctly – from the sprayer nozzles to the entire boom. They also don’t have to worry about running over and damaging their crops.

“The VSN provides peace of mind,” Muller adds. That peace of mind equates to a more efficient operation, which could mean an improved return on investment. “Time is money,” the saying goes, and the VSN allows operators to work faster because they don’t have to drive the machinery.

“The VSN can go up to 15 to 20 miles an hour, so operators can perform at speeds they wouldn’t be comfortable going when driving manually,” Muller says.

Not only that, but operators have the stamina to work longer and get more done because they aren’t mentally exhausted from driving, she adds. And when they head home after a long day, operators have also remarked that they aren’t “dragging,” like they might be without using the VSN.

“They are present with their families,” Muller notes, accenting the word “present.”

The VSN provides such stress relief that it can help operators cope better with job burnout and even extend their careers, Muller adds. “It ties in to being happy in the workplace,” she adds.

Tolono, Ill.-based agricultural retailer United Prairie uses the VSN in its custom fertilizer application segment. Ben Rawlins, United Prairie’s operations manager, says the company’s custom applicators were immediately impressed with the technology and that it has been a “major” stress reliever for them.

“Normally, when operators are running through the field post-crop, they are very tense,” Rawlins says. “The VSN allows them to be more relaxed. They’re able to watch the booms closer, even more so than what they would be if they were manually driving the machine. It allows them to focus on other pieces in the post application that don’t get as much attention as they should.”

When United Prairie first began using the VSN in 2019, Rawlins says there was a concern that some of the company’s more experienced operators wouldn’t use the technology if they didn’t think they needed it. But once they saw how well the VSN performed, they were all in, Rawlins says.

The learning curve to operate the VSN is not difficult, Burgers says. “To engage the VSN, you just push a button with your thumb like you would do with GPS,” he adds.

Operators must learn to trust the technology, though. But once they do – and it doesn’t take them long, considering they are ecstatic to have something else do the driving – there’s literally no turning back for them, Burgers adds.