James Kotecki (00:08): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you one of my favorite C Space Studio interviews from CES 2024. I had a lot of great conversations in Las Vegas, and I know you're going to like this one, so enjoy. 


Welcome back. You're in the C Space Studio here at CES 2024. I am James Kotecki, joined by Brett McMickell, senior technologist Kubota North America. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Brett McMickell (00:35): 

Thank you for having me. It's great to be here. 

James Kotecki (00:37): 

So Kubota has an exhibit or a big space, a big tent pavilion here at CES 2024. But for those who aren't able to come to that pavilion or to be at the show, what does the brand mean? Can you just kind of define the company a little bit? 

Brett McMickell (00:50): 

Yeah, Kubota's very excited. This is our first year exhibiting at CES. Kubota has been around for over 130 years developing solutions for society's big problems. And so Kubota believes that technology's role is really creating solutions for big challenges and food, water, and the environment, and that's what we're about. So the exhibit is showing how technology comes together to provide solutions in a residential setting. So we're looking at residential farmer with a few acres in a vineyard in this particular case, but we're also unveiling one of the key technologies, and that's an automation. So we have the New Agri Concept in our booth. It's an electric vehicle, ground up built as an EV, six independent motors, but it still has the versatility to pull all the implements that you would need for a farming operation. And so automation's going a long way is bringing data and then the AI together, and that's showing at the exhibit today. The other part of it is just introducing ourselves. It's our first time here, so you'll learn a little bit about Kubota and the history of Kubota and these challenges that we're facing. 

James Kotecki (02:02): 

So you're talking about farming on a residential scale, sometimes that's called smallholder farming. Is that a big focus for Kubota I assume that's relatively intentional? 

Brett McMickell (02:14): 

It is intentional. Kubota is well known for compact utility tractors. That's a space that we're comfortable in. We know a lot about what the customers are going through and their pain points. Matter of fact, we're going to have customers in our booth tomorrow morning talking about how they use Kubota technology today and Kubota equipment today, but also what challenges they're facing and how the technology and bringing together AI and automation is necessary to continue to support the lifestyle that they want to live. So it's very intentional. 

James Kotecki (02:43): 

And you talked about this electric vehicle. I mean, is it fair to call that a tractor? Is it kind of an all-purpose farming piece of equipment that you can just put different things on and you can achieve different farming goals? Can you give a little bit more there? 

Brett McMickell (02:56): 

Yeah, we took the name New Agri Concept just because it has so much more versatility than a tractor because you're bringing together sensors and automation, so it is a fully autonomous vehicle. You can see that in the video. And so we're bringing together the data, the autonomy, as well as the ability that versatility you're talking about and using the different implements. So you can use this type of a vehicle for operations such as mowing, tilling, and a large array of different operations, different tasks. So it does have that versatility that goes a little bit beyond a tractor. Tractors today don't have the smarts, and so we wanted to set it in its own segment. 

James Kotecki (03:39): 

That makes sense. I mean, it is a branding challenge and I suppose it's a branding opportunity as well. I mean, if you think about a phone, that could have meant something in 1972, and it means something very different here in 2024, but we still use the same brand for it. So I wonder if some people may still call it a tractor in the future, but it might actually mean something totally different. I noticed your pin and your pin is, I believe, talking about the UN sustainability or the overall goals, and this is an important aspect of CES. It has been for a couple of years here, human security, how technology can enable people to live better lives across a number of dimensions, sustainability, food security, regenerative agriculture, all that it's kind of under that umbrella. How does Kubota think about all these things? 

Brett McMickell (04:27): 

Kubota is very passionate about sustainability, security. That's actually one of the reasons we like to be here. It's a very purpose-driven company. And so food security, water, access to clean water, you'll see that in the booth as well. So all of this is really critical to what we're doing. And a matter of fact, that's part of the conversation that we want to have is how do we focus the technology more on solving some of these major societal problems such as food security, water, and then the environment. And so we have elements and how those come together shown in our booth. 

James Kotecki (05:01): 

Yeah. You mentioned that your vehicle has a lot of sensors on it. Can you give us a bit of a tour of the different kinds of data that you're able to capture from the world around and how that actually gets fed into the machine to actually help it make decisions? 

Brett McMickell (05:15): 

So yeah, I want to put it in context here. So the New Agri Concept is a concept vehicle. So it's a test ground for what we're doing and what we're exploring is the different sensor suites that are necessary to really solve problems. Our focus is on solving the problem that the customer has and different sensors that we're looking at, perception sensors as well as sensors for obstacle detection and functional safety. In terms of things that you can look at today, it's looking at the color and the health of the leaves and the crop, looking at the crop itself. For instance, in the exhibit that we have, we're focused on vineyards. So it's looking at the grapes and the clustering of grapes, providing a farmer with a lot more information that they can be more efficient in their operations is also part of sustainability, is reducing the inputs, reducing fertilizers, reducing and better managing water resources. So that's part of what we're trying to do as well. So it's not just the vehicle. Kubota's really trying to expand out and provide whole solutions because that's what's needed to solve these complex problems. 

James Kotecki (06:23): 

And how do you think about the way that farmers and growers actually take up this technology? Because you can obviously invent some pretty incredible stuff, but you also have to make it easy to use or at least easy enough to integrate it into the lives and the work that people are already doing. I assume that's a big part of the thought process. 

Brett McMickell (06:41): 

It is, and I'm glad you brought that up because it's incredibly important that we bring the technology to the growers and not make them compromise or try to adapt to the technology. And so a lot of the thought that's going into the technology Kubota's producing is how do we make it attractive so that we can get the adoption, which will lead to the benefits for society. And you can't get those unless you get people to use them. A lot of technology is out there, but some level of compromise or excessive training, we don't want growers to have to go get a degree in engineering in order to use this equipment. 

James Kotecki (07:19): 

Right. Does it feel like you're doing something on the range of sci-fi ever? I mean, as you're testing out these things, I'm thinking about the movie Interstellar, which famously had some drones out there on a farm and- 

Brett McMickell (07:31): 

Drones and combines. Yeah. 

James Kotecki (07:33): 

Exactly. I guess I'm just curious, do you imagine that kind of sci-fi future, maybe it's a distant future, but maybe one that you're working toward of some kind of fully autonomous farm or... You know what? Let me pull this question back. When you think about the future, what vision drives you? 

Brett McMickell (07:53): 

I mean, what we're driven by, we're really customer-centric. It's really understanding that problem and making sure that we're solving it, and we've got challenges right now in labor and water that we need to solve in order to feed the growing population. That's what we're really focused on. But in terms of the sci-fi and the question, seeing the advancements we're able to achieve today, it is quite rewarding. And I mean, it's exciting to be part of this, and now you've got enough data collection in agriculture that you're starting to be able to use artificial intelligence and bring the AI and automation together in a way that is really going to change the way that farming's done in the very, I would say, near future then further out. It's really coming together. 

James Kotecki (08:35): 

I think this is a really good point. So to invent the sci-fi future, you don't necessarily need to have some sci-fi vision. You need to focus on the customer. 

Brett McMickell (08:42): 


James Kotecki (08:42): 

And in so doing, by solving those problems, which you've said over and over again, and it makes a lot of sense, that's how you actually get to that future. 

Brett McMickell (08:48): 

You definitely want to focus on the customer. Without the adoption, without providing real value for the customer, you're not going to get the adoption, and then you can't make that change and trying to build up that future world all at once, you need all of the pieces to work together. So how do we get there? And it's going to be incremental, and I think that's been shown in other markets on the autonomy is you start to add more and more sensors and more and more autonomous features, and then slowly work your way up to the full autonomous that you'd see in Interstellar. 

James Kotecki (09:19): 

We're here at CES, of course, which has so many interesting technologies on display. Is there something, maybe it's here at CES or beyond, that is kind of catching your eyes, something on the horizon, you're thinking, "Oh, if that other technology develops, I wonder how it could intersect with the things that we're building"? 

Brett McMickell (09:37): 

There's not one particular technology I'm looking at. It's really how do we bring them together. I mean, that's what's going to change. A lot of the technology that is currently available. It just needs to be brought together in a way that the growers can consume it. And so I'm looking at that now on the perception side and then the artificial intelligence side, those are the two areas where I think when you cross, you're going to get a big unlock. It's getting the right access to data in the agricultural space, and that's been a holdback I think in agriculture because you only have so many times where you have access to the crop data, and so how do we build up that database and then you can tie it with artificial intelligence and then layer on the automation, then you're going to have a tremendous unlock. 

James Kotecki (10:20): 

Well, I hope that you're having a fantastic first year at CES. We hope you have you back at CES and back in the C Space Studio. Brett McMickell, Kubota North America, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Brett McMickell (10:30): 

Thank you. Really great to be here. 

James Kotecki (10:32): 

Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation from CES 2024. That's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. Hit that YouTube subscribe button, leave a comment, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeart Media, or wherever you're getting this show. And get more CES at ces.tech. That's ces.tech. I'm James Kotecki talking tech on CES Tech Talk.