Inside Raven

The future of autonomous ag tech is being created in South Dakota

It takes a leader with an innovation mindset to step up and create technology where it doesn't exist. That's what the creative engineers at Raven Industries are bringing to the future of agriculture. The story of this Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based international tech company is rooted in engineering excellence and ingenuity. "We want to be the agricultural autonomous solutions provider of the future. There are lots of problems to solve that are unique to this domain," said Matt Rust, Perception and Algorithms Team Lead at Raven. The use of autonomous technology in agriculture differs from driving a vehicle in the automotive sector, says Rust, who works on software/technology that runs large driverless tractors and combines for farmers across the United States.

For many engineers at Raven, working at a preeminent, innovation-led technology company that's invested in securing a sustainable future for agriculture has been the biggest motivation. "Efficient food production is extremely important. Earth's not gaining more land, so figuring out how to make our consumption of existing land more efficient for food production is extremely important," said Nick Weinandt, Software Engineer at Raven. As populations increase and labor challenges arise in industries across the world, including agriculture, the need for automated solutions are steadily rising. And the engineers at Raven are taking on the challenge.

What started as a company designing and manufacturing high-altitude research balloons for the American space program in 1956 has grown into a fast-growing, highly diversified technology company. With its aggressively expanding Applied Technology Division driving the future of agricultural autonomy, Raven's legacy of innovation and forethought now stretch from the soil to the stratosphere.

Raven is soaring in the field of precision agriculture and automation, quickly shaping the future of farming and food production. "One of our most unique control systems is our RS1™ steering system. It integrates inertial sensors and GPS data. It also accounts for machine dynamics to appropriately tell the machine where to steer to stay in a line," said Rust. This scalable steering solution transitioned well into VSN®, an image-based system that navigates crop rows, allowing the operator to focus on all other aspects of effective application control. Engineering Team Lead, Justin Krosschell partners closely with Rust, and their teams have been working on the OMNiDRIVE™, an integrated system to monitor and operate cabbed tractors without a driver. Another key innovation that recently hit the market is the OMNiPOWER™, a no-cab, driverless, self-propelled power platform that easily interchanges farm implements like a sprayer or spreader to perform multiple tasks in any season. Farmers can operate both systems remotely to perform autonomous tasks on the field.

To innovate at the speed the marketplace demands, Raven engineers need to be able to see the big picture so that they can work in the details to create the best interconnected solutions. They understand the importance of compatibility and integration within hardware and software, as well as the mix of end users and their agricultural practices. There's adaptability, accessibility, and ownership over how they build onto their leading agricultural autonomous technology, while consistently account for the human element. Krosschell and Rust have been collaborating on "separating out a machine control interface in both hardware and software, so that we can abstract away the propulsion, braking, and steering of the system from some of the elements that are trying to just determine where we should go, not how we should do it," which allows their systems to automate tractors and combines no matter the manufacturer.

Rust stresses on the value of the farmer-operator and the complexity of problems they are solving while in the field. "They're not just driving the vehicle straight or putting the crops in a certain spot. They're also finding out when a seed isn't getting planted in the ground and when a nozzle isn't spraying. They notice that the boom hit a tree. They're monitoring that the tank is getting empty and they should be probably heading back the right way to not run over a bunch of crops and kill this guy's field of crops to refill the tank. They have a lot more planning in their minds," he said. "We've created a solution for syncing a grain cart to a combine, and then bringing it back to the truck to unload. In a situation where there are labor shortages, you've got to find scenarios where there's a way to do a job that requires more than one person to be done by one person." The goal for Raven is not about eliminating a job but instead it is to, as Krosschell says, "make people's lives and their work more meaningful. The way you do that is by automating routine tasks."

Senior AI Development Engineer Rahul Ramakrishnan believes Raven has a true edge in being a leader in innovation. "This is because you, as an employee, have the full context of what the product should be, what the customers need and you can finish this full cycle all by yourself by having more ownership of the product, which motivates you to create the best possible outcome." Engineers like Ramakrishnan often visit the Raven Innovation Campus to test out technology they have been working on, finessing it through rounds of trials. "If your test is successful right there, you just build up a production software and then push it through," he said. The innovation mindset permeates through the company and its dedication to hands-on, in-person interactions with its team members and end users. The environment at Raven intentionally invites that. "You do not need to wait for permission. In fact, we would really encourage you to just take initiative," said Rust, who leads a team of eight engineers in Perception and Algorithms.

Kelly Vanderwerff, Senior Research Engineer at Raven, remembers sitting at lunch with an operator, talking about how sore he gets at the end of the season. "And if the steering system is steering jerkily, that's really hard on his neck and back after 14-hour work days. So it made me think about it more," she said. "What are other poor performance states that we want to be able to detect? It made me rethink how sensitive those metrics need to be. As a data analyst, you spend a lot of time looking at numbers and something that's tough about it is there can be a disconnect between this number here and what it represents in the real world." For her, listening to customers helps her team iterate better towards success. "It's also really fulfilling to think that maybe we can prevent somebody from being in pain by the end of the day."

"For me, the levels of growth that we've achieved have been astonishing," said Tom Shedd, an Engineering Team Lead. "As we continue to grow and see the effects that our products have on the world, it's an eye-opening experience that excites me and makes me feel like I'm making a difference."

So, what makes Raven so unique? One, it's all happening in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—shaping it to be a surprising contender as the next tech hub attracting world-class engineering talent from across the globe. And two, there's no one doing what they are doing in ag automation at the scale and pace they are working at. They are also a community of innovators and expert listeners—a crew creating engineering excellence by consistently engaging with the end users of their products. There's a lot to be said when team members like Nagaraju Mukka, who recently joined Raven from a large global equipment manufacturing company, says, "No other company in the world can beat the interview process of Raven. In other companies, they spend at least 60-70 percent of the time asking technical questions. But at Raven, they spend 70 percent of the time getting to know who you are. They just want to hear your story." It shows their people-centric approach to solving challenges in agriculture.

"Solving great challenges requires a lot of forethought. It requires innovation, monitoring a set of inputs and measuring a set of outputs. But the thing that's really motivating is most of the products that 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," said Krosschell.

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