Just two months ago, Dutch start-up AgXeed premiered its robot tractor for Future Farming. A robot that growers have been waiting for, they say. We had the opportunity to be the first to see it at work: autonomously subsoiling and spading a field.
Shortly after its official premiere, AgXeed invited Future Farming to see their 156 hp robot tractor at work with an electrically driven Imants 38WX spader and subsoiler.
The engine, a four-cylinder water-cooled Deutz diesel, is fitted in the centre of the robot under the ‘bonnet’. That is basically all that is conventional about the robot that until further notice goes by the name of Agbot. It has an electrical drivetrain with interchangeable tracks and an electric 136 hp PTO.
There is also a provision to power implements electrically, using the AEF Isobus high voltage guideline with orange cables that resemble hydraulic hoses. In collaboration with Imants, the spader was converted to be electrically driven. It no longer has a central gearbox and drivetrain, but a large liquid-cooled electric motor that drives the spader shaft.
When you see the combination at work, you hardly hear anything until the robot tractor has passed by. Then the sound of the electric drivetrain dominates, which is something like a mixture of the sound made by a large electric forklift and a hydrostatic drivetrain.
Text continues underneath the video
GPS, sensors and optical recoginition of crop rows
The Agbot with its GPS and sensors and, more recently, also optical recognition of crop rows, is perfectly capable of finding its own way. However, that is not how AgXeed intends it to work. You first have to choose your field, implement(s), preferred routing and other settings in their online portal, which is a crucial part of the overall concept. You use the portal to make settings, to determine headlands, an AB line and a start and finish position.
It can also calculate an optimal routing for working a field as efficiently as possible. These are things you usually do yourself in a field.
Import field boundaries
To get started, you need to import field boundaries measured by AgXeed or by a company certified by them. Then you create a job and choose the field you want to work. Now you ‘step into’ your virtual Farming Simulator-like machine shed and choose the Agbot you want to work with − in our case the Imants 38WX spader with subsoiler.
Next, you determine parameters such as working depth/height and, if relevant, application rates. AgXeed has fitted a small ECU to the spader with all of its parameters on it. This is necessary because the software and the robot tractor need to know the dimensions and working widths of the implement, which speeds are required, what lifting positions, traction control, etc. This is standardised within the Isobus 11783 in a so-called ‘device descriptor’. AgXeed hopes that more machine manufacturers will start using this. For older tools without Isobus compatibility you have to enter data manually.
Text continues underneath image
This is the first model of an intended series of three robots with 75, 143 and 211 hp,respectively. They will initially have diesel engines, but no power source is ruled out. - Photo: Margriet Nijenhuis
After this, you select how you want the combination to work: path along path (for ploughing for example) or along a route optimised by the software. Select the field border along which you want the robot to start, choose a start and finish position, the desired overlap between paths, the number of headland passes and let it calculate the routing. Then you finalise the planning by sending the entire job wirelessly via 3G or 4G to your Agbot.
Coupling the old-fashioned way
Coupling implements is and will remain manual work and is (almost) the same as it always was. Before you do this, you determine which set of tracks you want to use for the job. Triangular tracks 300, 400, 620, 760 and 910 mm wide are possible. However, with the latter tracks the vehicle is wider than 3 m. With a forklift you detach the tracks from the electric drive to change them.
The track width is mechanically adjustable from 2.25 to 3.2 m. The latter is mainly intended for organic and controlled traffic farming. You then manoeuvre the robot tractor with the remote control and operate the 3-tonne front or 8-tonne rear linkage remotely or via the buttons on the side panel to attach the implement. Connect the Isobus plug, the PTO and/or the electrical cables, and, in this case, the coolant lines.
Text continues underneath image
Sensors and other hardware are accredited for autonomous work without supervision. - Photo: Margriet Nijenhuis
Clever transport solution
The engineers have come up with a very clever transport solution. An axle with two wheels and a drawbar connect to the vehicle via two central tubes, so that you can attach it as a trailer behind your (manned) tractor. This way, you can also transport multiple Agbots in one go. Implement(s) are lifted on top of the robot. Once in the field, you fold up the drawbar and axle, fire up the engine and put the implement into working position with the buttons on the side panel or with the remote control, and leave the robot do its job.
Next year, ten robots will be working at selected European farms and in 2022 AgXeed hopes to market a pre-series of their robot tractor for € 249,500.
Text continues underneath image
The engineers have come up with this transport solution: there is an axle with two wheels and a drawbar coupled to the vehicle via two central tubes, making it a narrow trailer. - Photo: AgXeed
Safety above all
Safety is crucial with autonomous operations, also on enclosed grounds. In the AgXeed robot tractor, this is built in to the hardware such as the vehicle ECU, the sensors and the remote control. But the LiDAR sensor that is placed on top and the ultrasonic sensor that provides phased obstacle detection are also accredited for autonomous work without supervision. That makes them difficult to obtain and very expensive.
If the sensors detect an obstacle, you will receive a notification on your smartphone and you can view the surroundings via cameras. If the robot can continue, you just give that command remotely. If that is not possible, you have to go on site for a restart. And of course, you can remotely see whether the diesel, spray tank and/or seed tank are empty.
Thermal, radar and visual cameras will follow in the future for, among other things, navigation and data collection related to crop and soil conditions.