Machinery

Background

Autonomous tractor to revolutionise field work

The lead in the race for a driver-free, super-efficient arable farming utopia has been taken up by SeedMaster – a little known name in the world of autonomous agriculture but with grand plans to revolutionise life in (or rather, out of) the tractor seat.

It’s called Dot and is an offshoot of the firm that made its name building mammoth drills and seed carts in the heart of the Canadian prairies. The robotised rig was created by SeedMaster chief Norbert Beaujot, who set about the challenge of getting a driverless tractor into mainstream production back in 2014.

His design looks nothing like a normal tractor – instead it takes the form of a U-shaped tool carrier with the engine and hydraulic driveline sitting in lopsided fashion along one part of a three-sided frame.

Chronic lack of skilled farming labour

Canada, like many first-world nations, is suffering from a chronic lack of skilled farming labour as potential employees ditch the tractor seat in favour of the juicier wages in oil, mining and construction. The widely trumpeted solution is to automate time-sapping jobs – a nice idea that has proved almost impossibly hard to bring to reality.

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The lead in the race for a driver-free, arable farming utopia has been taken up by SeedMaster. It has grand plans to revolutionise life in (or rather, out of) the tractor seat and it’s called Dot. - Photos: SeedMaster
The lead in the race for a driver-free, arable farming utopia has been taken up by SeedMaster. It has grand plans to revolutionise life in (or rather, out of) the tractor seat and it’s called Dot. - Photos: SeedMaster

Mr Beaujot’s aim was to build a versatile tool carrier, rather than wasting an intelligent platform by restricting its responsibilities to simply drilling or grain carting. His early plans proved enough to convince dozens of overworked Canadian growers (and several from other continents) to put down deposits long before the finished product was ready to hit the fields.

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200 hp Cummins Tier 5 block

It uses a simple but clever U-shaped carriage to pick up implements sideways (in its 3.8 m-wide transport mode) before swivelling 90° on its four wheels so the engine sits at the front during field work. The powerplant is a 200 hp Cummins Tier 5 block, which is mounted on one side of the box section frame and sends its power through a splitter gearbox to a set of four Poclain variable displacement hydraulic pumps.

Two of these provide auxiliary power to the implements (all are oil-powered, so there’s no pto) while the other 2 provide hydrostatic drive to the wheels. Each leg carries a hydraulic motor providing all-wheel power and two speed ranges topping out at 9 km/h and 19 km/h, respectively.

Diesel over batteries

A heavier-duty walking beam axle on the side opposite the engine helps keep all 4 wheels biting into terra firma and acts as a counterweight to the driveline. Dot’s choice of diesel power differs from most prototype driverless tractors, which tend to run off batteries. However, electricity adds complexity, both in manufacturing and for the end user. Big batteries remain prohibitively expensive, don’t have the capacity to deliver the huge power outputs required and are a nightmare to charge in hard-to-reach places with poor access to the grid.

Robot-grade software by Seedmaster and Raven

The robot-grade software that allows Dot to run without a driver was developed by SeedMaster’s 7 developers and supported by guidance specialist Raven. Manual steering with a remote-control joystick is only really needed for farmyard manoeuvres and picking up/dropping off implements, although even this can be automated once their GPS coordinates have been noted. It uses existing field maps to create uncrossable virtual boundaries for the machine and its implement.

The company’s own software makes sense of the information provided by the map, including hazards such as rogue troughs and power poles. From that, it picks out the most efficient route across a field, which must then be approved by the farmer before it is sent to the on-board processor.

Specifications

Engine: Cummins QSB4.5 Tier 4F 4.5-litre turbocharged diesel
Power: 173 hp @ 2,200 rpm
Torque: 705 Nm @ 1,500rpm
Top speed: 19 km/h
Auxiliary hydraulic pump: 230 litres/min @ 207 bar
Dry weight: 5,670 kg
Carrying capacity: 18,000 kg
Transport width: 3.76 m
Transport length: 6.1m
Height: 3.66 m
Fuel tank: 320 litres
Continuous run time: 10-14 hours
Standard tyres: 500/70 R24
Price expected to be: $ 250,000 – $ 300,000

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As many as 6 units should be up and running for this season, with another 20 scheduled for 2019 and many more in the pre-order book. The company is initially focusing on Western Canada.
As many as 6 units should be up and running for this season, with another 20 scheduled for 2019 and many more in the pre-order book. The company is initially focusing on Western Canada.

On-board cameras

Dot strictly follows this route and will stop dead if it’s forced to deviate, before sending an alert and waiting for operator input. Owners can also keep tabs on its progress through on-board cameras, or even take the reins via long-range wifi. Most of the basic decision-making during work is computerised, so it can do things such as reduce forward speed to climb a steep hill. It also collects data as it works, which can be used to form variable rate application and horsepower maps as well as monitoring fuel usage and repair/maintenance indicators.

In the field

To keep purchasing decisions simple, one Dot unit is designed to be able to cover the same land area as a single combine – about 1,000 ha. Machines still require a degree of operator input – sprayer tanks and drill hoppers need filling, as does the fuel tank every 10-14 hours – but it’s designed to be far less taxing than an 18-hour stint in the seat.

Nor is there any getting away from the fact that shear-bolts break and nozzles block, but there are plenty of companies developing cameras and sensors capable of detecting problems and alerting operators.

Empty weight of less than 6 ton

The cost of the kit is tumbling too, so there’s likely to be rapid progress in this department. Carrying implements on top of the power platform also helps cut compaction by making use of their weight to benefit traction. Typically, tractors must outweigh the drill or cultivator to help put their power to the ground, but Dot can make do with a fairly modest empty weight of less than 6 ton, which apparently reduces the quantity fuel and power required purely for propulsion.

Health and safety

As ever, health and safety represents the biggest challenge in any type of automation. The first objective is to get the machines working in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the authorities are keen to embrace any technology that cuts the number of accidents caused by overtired operators. However, the company is bound to be engaged in a few arm wrestles with law makers in other countries.

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Dot uses a simple but clever U-shaped carriage to pick up implements sideways before swivelling 90 degrees on its 4 wheels so the engine sits at the front during field work.
Dot uses a simple but clever U-shaped carriage to pick up implements sideways before swivelling 90 degrees on its 4 wheels so the engine sits at the front during field work.

Radar and lidar sensors

Default protection modes that bring it to a standstill outside of its working boundaries are standard and more safety kit will be added in due course, including radar/lidar sensors. Developments in the autonomy of cars – particularly self-steering and automatic braking – are making the technology cheaper than ever before, but someone, somewhere will still have to be responsible. Early models aren’t set-up to drive on the roads and will need carting to sites on a trailer – but the plan is to be able to send units between fields in the future.

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One of the perks of Dot is that it can be used for all sorts of tasks, including grain carting, cultivating, drilling and spraying. All of the implements are mounted without wheels or hitches – instead it uses 4 ram powered hooks to hoist the implement on to cone-like guides, in turn forming the fourth side of the rectangular frame.

Designing the power unit first – with a single, clear horsepower rating and hydraulic capacity – means the implements can be built to suit its capacity. The company has assembled a range of items through sister firm SeedMaster, most of which have been adapted from standard, hydraulically driven tools.

Dot-ready implements

The 9m drill, for instance, is simply one third of the firm’s mainstream product and is able to offer variable rate and auto shut-off. Other products will include a 12-row planter, 18m sprayer with 3,785-litre tank, a 12.5m land roller and 14 ton grain cart. Short-line manufacturers have also been invited to build their own Dot-ready implements and it has prompted a flurry of interest from companies such as Pattison Liquid Systems, that developed a 36m sprayer.

Although the development process is expensive, potential suppliers see Dot as a fast-tracked opportunity to get into the robotics business without relying on the world’s biggest ag machinery makers.

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Short-line manufacturers have also been invited to build their own Dot-ready implements such as Pattison Liquid Systems, that developed a 36 m sprayer.
Short-line manufacturers have also been invited to build their own Dot-ready implements such as Pattison Liquid Systems, that developed a 36 m sprayer.

Other potential sectors for automation include the repetitive tasks of feeding and cleaning duties on dairy farms – a market where the likes of Lely have already had plenty of success with smaller robotic units. There have also been whacky-sounding whispers about making a combine.

Europe-friendly model

As many as 6 units should be up and running for this season, with another 20 scheduled for production next year and many more in the pre-order book. The company is initially focusing on western Canada, but it hopes to have a Europe-friendly model with a 3m transport width ready within 3 years. That timeline puts it well ahead of most other autonomous tractors being developed by universities and researchers, which are predominantly small, electrically powered and miles from reaching mainstream production and large-scale operation.

CNH, Fendt and Kubota

Surprisingly, the farm machinery market’s biggest hitters have so far failed to get any sort of chokehold on the gold rush of autonomous ag. The likes of CNH, Fendt and Kubota have dabbled with driverless technology – and several others have demoed master-and-slave-style systems – but, so far, their efforts seem to be more of a bombastic marketing exercise than anything close to manufacturing.

Need to know

  • 6 units running this year 
  • Implements will include a 36 m sprayer, 14 ton grain cart and 9 m drill
  • Bare unit likely to cost $ 250,000 – $ 300,000
  • Europe-friendly 3 m version coming by 2021

Also read: DOT & Raven Technologies combine precision tech systems

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