The Autonomous Wizard of Oz blog Part 1: Starting out

Gerrit Kurstjens, is a pioneering farmer who has already clocked up 40,000ha of autonomous operations on 13,000ha of cropping area at Beefwood Farms, Moree in New South Wales, Australia. In this exclusive series of blogs he explains more about these remarkable developments.

One of the many challenges facing Australian cropping farmers is how to effectively farm 13,000ha with only 5 permanent staff and without them having to work day and night to get the job done.

Recruiting extra staff is a big difficulty in Australia. Many farms have to rely on hiring in help from European and Canadian students or backpackers to operate increasingly complex machines.

So, it’s no wonder the first tractors to be fitted with GPS auto-steering were developed and employed here in Moree. Equipped with Beeline technology, this allows the tractors to be driven by less experienced operators and still do an excellent job.

Going autonomous to save time

Further automation came in the form of one of the first ‘WeedSeeker’ 24m wide, spot sprayers. While this saves a staggering 90% of the chemical bill and works well, it takes 3 times longer than a standard broad-acre sprayer to cover the same area.

The answer had to be, ditch this boring work and make the tractor operate autonomously.

During a visit to the Netherlands, I met 3 ex-students who had designed and built autonomous lawn mowers for golf courses. To cut a long story short, the result was 10 months later the first autonomous unit for our Fendt 936 was ready to go.

The autonomous tractor’s first run

Although we trusted the system, it’s still scary to ‘activate’ the autonomous tractor for the first time – and watch it disappear without a driver into the distance. You can only hope that it will travel safely to the next headland, which is 5km away, turn around and come back.

The first night when I had ‘control’ of the driverless Fendt I could not sleep

It is like putting your child onto the plane to travel the world – you just hope she or he will return. The first night when I had ‘control’ of the driverless Fendt I could not sleep. I have to admit I did look to check – only to find the tractor happily driving up and down in the dark.

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Performed beyond expections

Our first prototype worked way beyond our expectations – autonomously covering about 10,000ha in the first year, mainly spot spraying and tramline renovation – repairing the Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) tracks.

Of course, there were a few problems, but no major issues. The Probotiq company, which was later sold to Precision Makers, solved these issues, eventually replacing the prototype with a pre-production unit, which was much more user friendly.

I find autonomous operations simply ‘mind-blowing’. So much so a few months later we ordered 2 more autonomous units, which are now working on John Deere 8345 R tractors.

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The autonomous Fendt on its way to the next headland, which is 5km away. "It’s still scary to ‘activate’ the autonomous tractor for the first time – and watch it disappear without a driver into the distance." - Photo: Gerrit Kurstjens
The autonomous Fendt on its way to the next headland, which is 5km away. "It’s still scary to ‘activate’ the autonomous tractor for the first time – and watch it disappear without a driver into the distance." - Photo: Gerrit Kurstjens

Cutting labour costs

Our cost calculations reveal the biggest savings are not actually coming from the reduced labour requirement, but instead from doubling the working hours – particularly to include long nights and weekends. Instead of a 60hr/week the autonomous tractor is happy to work 160hr/week, while its on-duty ‘driver’ is free to visit friends or even go shopping.

Next time the Autonomous Wizard of Oz blog explains how it all works.

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