A tractor that ‘learns’ repetitive field tasks and repeats them without an operator is one of several intelligent technologies being developed by the power transmissions and control specialist ZF.
The German supplier of powershift and CVT transmissions, axles and other powertrain components to tractor manufacturers Worldwide is developing new digital technologies with the help of Lindner in Austria.
The partners’ first working prototype can follow a lead tractor to the field and then operate autonomously once it has been driven through the required working routine.
Other technologies provide steering guidance via sensors that recognise the edge of a crop or a swath, and all-round surveillance with an automatic ‘stop’ if a security zone around the tractor is breached.
The ‘Follow Me’ feature enables a driverless tractor to a follow a driven tractor to the field.
“Our prototype shows how the agricultural sector can benefit from the automotive megatrends of connectivity, artificial intelligence and automation,” says Mark Mohr, head of the Automated Operations project centre at ZF.
The experimental work is based on a 102hp Lintrac 90 equipped with a ZF Terramatic TMT09 continuously variable transmission and Lindner’s optional 4-wheel steering.
Initiating the ‘Follow Me’ feature is done simply using a mobile device app.
A GNSS satellite guidance system connected to the steering, hydraulics and transmission make it possible to automate various functions, which are set up and monitored via a mobile device app.
Lidar and radar sensor cameras
For safety, signals from lidar and radar sensor cameras are processed by ZF’s ProAI control platform, developed with IT-specialist Nvidia and capable of deep learning, to give the tractor a 360° ‘view’ with person recognition.
In a forage harvesting scenario filmed by the partners, one operator drives a mowing tractor to the field with a tedding tractor following automatically behind.
Another app records a single driven field operation – such as mowing or tedding grass – which is then ‘pasted’ into the tractor’s control system.
After opening up the crop with the help of the steering sensor guidance, the operator completes a round with the tedding tractor, which can then continue working on its own, starting at a pre-scheduled time if necessary.
“The technology contained in this concept tractor opens the door to many innovative features,” says Mark Mohr. “For example, with the aid of low energy Bluetooth tags from the ZF Openmatics telematics platform, the tractor is able to recognise which implement is mounted on the front and rear linkage.”
The tractor can then repeat the operation, if necessary starting at a time scheduled by the operator.
Lindner is already promoting the system as TracLink Pilot; managing director Hermann Lindner says it will be possible to retro-fit the technologies to the Lintrac 90 and new 113hp Lintrac 110 tractors once legislation permits them.
ZF’s Mark Mohr agrees that small farms with limited labour resources such as those supplied by Lindner will benefit from the concept tractor’s features.
Look, no Hans! Driverless technologies being developed by ZF and Lindner could be exploited on farms with few workers to increase productivity.
But he anticipates the technology being especially relevant to large farming operations in North and South America, Russia and other countries where fields cover many hundreds of acres and there is potential for significant labour and cost savings from autonomous vehicle operation.