Using Robots to Minimize Grain Bin Tragedy
One momentous trip to town helped launch a homegrown tech start-up whose mission became no boots in the grain.
Tony Bestwick/Chief, Fire Department – City of York, Nebraska: “Bin rescue is very dangerous. It doesn’t happen that often. Low frequency/high risk is what we call it. It’s very labor-intensive. You can’t just have them come in through the door, because what does that do? The grain comes down on them, right? So, if you’ve got a bad situation, and then you just make it worse with this cascading grain.”
Chief Tony Bestwick heads up the fire department in York, Nebraska. Beside battling blazes, his crew has struggled to rescue farm workers trapped in grain bins. Given even a rapid response, the threat of suffocation looms.
Tony Bestwick/Chief, Fire Department – City of York, Nebraska: “It’s a very stressful situation.”
Experts say an adult can be submerged in a grain bin filled with corn or soybeans in as little as 20 seconds – a tragedy some on the farm know all too well.
Zach Hunnicutt/Giltner, Nebraska: “Someone in their family, or a neighbor, or somebody they know… I think just about every farmer that is around grain bins has a story of someone they know that has lost their life in a grain bin.”
Safety is top of mind for fifth generation Nebraska row crop producer Zach Hunnicutt. He was just a child when his grandfather’s brother died in a grain bin accident. Today, Hunnicutt follows proper protocols when moving harvested raw commodities out of storage for buyers. But one momentous trip to town helped launch a homegrown tech start-up whose mission became no boots in the grain.
Ben Johnson/Chief Innovation Officer & CO-Founder – Grain Weevil Corporation: “We were building a robot and we were showing that to people at church and showed that to a family friend of ours, who farms, and he said: If you can build that robot, you should build me a robot to keep me and my kids out of the grain bin.”
Ben Johnson and his father Chad had never set foot in a grain bin before they invented the Grain Weevil, an autonomous robot that cruises through grain loads on a pair of mini-augers, busting up clumps and surface crusting – to maintain profitable product. They say their machine also minimizes lung complications and combustion issues associated with concentrated grain dust.
Chad Johnson/Chief Executive Officer & CO-Founder – Grain Weevil Corporation: “I like to tell people, it’s like…every dad’s dream to build robots with their kid – and people look at me kind of funny. I say ok, every nerd dad’s dream.”
With a love of robotics fostered by his educator father, Ben earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska – Omaha. Their business went from father and son building prototypes at home in small town Aurora, to a shop in the state’s largest metro area with seven full-time employees and six patents in the works.
Ben Johnson/Chief Innovation Officer & CO-Founder – Grain Weevil Corporation: “This is three years of our work. It started in the shed just putting it together with whatever we had. Now you can see we’ve really grown the team and been able to engineer this thing to be powerful and capable inside the bin.”
Grain Weevil assures one robot alone can manage up to 250,000 bushels. They’re currently working to earn key safety certifications they claim will unleash a monetized ecosystem between insurance, finance, farmers and ancillary businesses.
Chad Johnson/CEO & CO-Founder – Grain Weevil Corporation: “Take one bushel of grain, and follow that along the supply chain. We can actually capitalize on that one bushel of grain on the farm, at the co-ops, in the transportation, at the food processing facilities – all have use cases for the robot.”
For Hunnicutt, whose own grain bins have been used as proving ground for the Grain Weevil, it’s an idea that came home to roost.
Zach Hunnicutt/Giltner, Nebraska: “It’s just been cool to see that evolution. We’ve created a lot of technological solutions, in other places on the farm, to protect us from unnecessary risks and this is one of the final frontiers.”
Dr. Aaron Yoder/Associate Professor – University of Nebraska Medical Center: “We try to find the most current research on keeping the grain in good quality at conferences like this. Whether it’s through - just management techniques, or we can remove the human from hazardous situations…using a robot to do that would be a great example.”
University of Nebraska Medical Center Associate Professor Dr. Aaron Yoder performs grain bin safety outreach on behalf of his institution’s Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health. Grain Weevil sought his expertise on compliance – along with Nationwide Insurance, the country’s largest agricultural insurer.
Nationwide conducts an annual Grain Bin Safety Week to raise awareness about the dangers of working in and around the structures. The company has donated rescue tubes to various fire departments across the U.S., including York, Nebraska.
Dr. Aaron Yoder/Associate Professor – University of Nebraska Medical Center: “I don’t think there’s probably any producer out there that doesn’t know the risk. It’s just…they’re willing to take more risk than some other people. When I see things like that, I get tremendously sad, because we know it could be preventable.”
UNMC’s Nebraska farm fatality and injury statistics 2012-2021 show 13 grain-bin related cases, with nine deaths a direct result of stored-grain engulfment. This past July another casualty occurred less than an hour west of York, near Grand Island.
Dr. Aaron Yoder/Associate Professor – University of Nebraska Medical Center: “Often times people will go inside the bin to either check the quality of the grain, or to do something if it goes out of condition. It gets lumpy. It gets moldy. They’ll go in to try to break up some of those blockages that might be in there that prevent the grain from flowing.”
Purdue University tracks a broader scope of fatal and non-fatal grain entrapment cases nationally. They recently found a nearly 45 percent increase, higher than the five-year average, in incidents between 2021 and 2022. In Husker country, the sense of urgency is palpable.
Chad Johnson/CEO & CO-Founder – Grain Weevil Corporation: “We gotta hurry. We gotta do this as fast as we possibly can…but we can’t. We have to do it right. It takes a lot to develop a machine this complicated. It really does motivate us though. It keeps us pushing. It keeps us moving forward. We know, every two weeks that we don’t get one done, somebody’s losing a father or a son or a mother that’s in there helping. It’s tough.”
First responders caution there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the field – where improvising comes with the territory. For Chief Bestwick, proactive measures are another addition to the toolbox.
Tony Bestwick/Chief, Fire Department – City of York, Nebraska: “Anything that makes it safer for ourselves, or our producers, we’re all for. You know, there’s no better feeling in the world to know that you took part in a team effort to save a life.”
For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.