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Corny Technology: Welcome to Innovative Iowa

November 25, 2011 - 0 Comments

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

A couple of weeks ago I was in the bustling metropolis of Stanton, Iowa (population: 714), one of the most charming towns I have ever had the pleasure to visit. It is the home town of Mrs. Olson, the iconic figure in Folger’s Coffee commercials — which is why their water towers look so unique (see the photo insert below).

I was working with an independent telephone company client, one of about 1,300 in the U.S. — 250 of which are in Iowa. These independents are typically smaller phone companies, often family-owned, and almost always technologically-advanced.

This client was no exception; they’re part of a consortium of similarly-minded companies looking to dive deep into new technologies and have already built an advanced fiber infrastructure that interconnects them all (sounds almost Tolkien-like, doesn’t it? One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them…)

But I digress. Iowa has more independent telcos than any other state, and more – by far – that are building advanced architectures to serve future customers. California, with a population of roughly 37 million, has 12 independent telcos building fiber-to-the-home infrastructure. Iowa, with a population of 3 million, one-tenth that of California, has 54.

Every time I come to the Midwest I am surprised at the level of technological innovation that goes on here — and it goes way beyond fiber rings.

When I arrived in town, one of the guys, knowing I’m a photographer, asked me if I had taken any good shots coming into town. Yes, I replied; I had seen a big corn harvester far off in the distance with the sun setting behind it, illuminating the dust cloud behind the thing in a golden glow that was pretty impressive.

“Yeah, that was a friend of mine you saw out there; you should have gone over to see it — they’re pretty impressive.” I replied that I would have loved to, but the thing was way off in the distance on the far horizon and I couldn’t very well take my rental car on an off-road jaunt across a cornfield. “OK, so tomorrow after our session I’ll take you over there to see it and meet him. Wear jeans — you’re going to get dirty.”

The 21st Century Guidance from Above

And so it was that the next day I found myself bouncing across a recently-cut cornfield, heading for a dust cloud over the next rise. And then we found it: a brontosaurus-sized machine, lumbering across the field in front of us, cutting corn. This thing was HUGE: The tires are taller than I am (Look at the size of the men walking to the right of the harvester in the picture).

The corn stalks are cut by those teeth sticking out in front. Inside, the corn-laden cobs are separated, the corn is banged off in a process that is too difficult to explain, and the cobs and stalks are ground up to be used later for silage. The kernels ride up an Archimedean screw into a hopper, where they are tested for water content (14% is optimal) and await the chase vehicle which follows them and into which the corn is pumped by yet another screw, to be transported to the storage silos.

But I digress again.

I climbed into the cab of the beast with the driver, and as I sat in the driver’s position he explained to me that it was easy to drive – gas pedal, brake, steering wheel. “All you have to do is keep your hands close to the wheel because it drives itself.” I was puzzled, and he explained. “This thing is guided by GPS; we’ve already mapped the fields so it knows when to turn, how to avoid obstacles, and so on. I only have to really do anything if the GPS turns off for some reason.”

It reminded me of a quote from USC Business Professor Emeritus Warren Bennis: “The business of the future will be run by a person and a dog. The person will be there to feed the dog; the dog will be there to make sure the person doesn’t touch anything.”

Afterward I did a little research and found that companies like John Deere, International Harvester and others make GPS guidance devices that save operators like the one I met as much as $150,000 per year in fuel alone, because they not only guide the farm equipment, they also do least-cost routing — a function performed in modern routers to maximize the efficiency of networks. And that’s just fuel savings: they also reduce the cost of seed, fertilizer and pesticides by picking the most efficient spread route.

Who would have thought it — advanced telecom services in a corn field? I love this industry.

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