Brazilian agtech company Grunner turns regular Mercedes-Benz trucks into autonomous farm vehicles for sugar cane harvesting. With the autonomous trucks, farmers can reduce both costs and soil compaction.
Presented at Agrishow 2022 in Brazil, last week, the technology is already used by hundreds of farms in Brazil through a partnership with Mercedes-Benz.
The idea for autonomous trucks arose in 2013, when the brothers Henrique and Mateus Belei saw opportunities to improve the sugar cane harvesting process on their farm in the municipality of Lençóis Pulistas, São Paulo state.
Three years ago, they founded the company Grunner to solve a specific problem: the crushing of rows of sugar cane plants that tractors traditionally cause. Therefore, they decided to adapt one truck for harvesting and another truck for the application of inputs.
The brothers’ innovation worked out. In addition to increasing productivity in the field, the autonomous truck also performs operations without running over sugarcane plants. In addition, a cost reduction in the sugar cane production process was achieved and the CO2 emissions in the production of sugar cane were reduced.
Currently, the company has around 250 ATR models (used for hauling sugarcane during harvest) in operation on the market, but plans to sell around 600 by December of this year. Moreover, the autonomous trucks are also used in grain cultivation, forestry and in the mining sector.
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In 2013, first tests were done with georeferenced autosteer in combination with adjustable track width to avoid running over sugar cane plants. In 2018, Mercedes-Benz teamed up with Grunner to incorporate autonomous driving technology in its trucks.
The degree of autonomy is divided into levels, from L1 to L5, according to the degree of “independence” of the vehicle. L1, for example, is a kind of steering assistant, like an autopilot that maintains speed. L5 means that the vehicle can operate 100% autonomously.
“Our equipment operates at level 2 and 3. Level 2 means we create a route and the driver intervenes when necessary. Level 3 allows to operate the trucks remotely up to a distance of 4 kilometres”, says Mateus Belei, co-founder of Grunner.
As a result of an agreement between Grunner and Mercedes-Benz, the truck manufacturer has all the technical protocols at its disposal, so that innovations can be developed more quickly in a joint process.
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According to Grunner, the use of autonomous trucks offers various cost-saving advantages in the harvesting of sugar cane. For example, fuel consumption is said to be around 40 % lower than that of conventional tractors. In addition, maintenance costs are reduced. For example, the trucks have to change the oil every 600 hours, while the tractors have to change the oil twice as often.
Because the autonomous trucks from Mercedes-Benz and Grunner are lighter than the larger tractors typically used in harvesting, less soil compaction occurs. It also means that harvesting can be done faster after periods of rain.
“We will diversify the product line, seek new alliances and improve the experience of our customers”, says Denis Arroyo Alves, who became CEO of Grunner in October of 2021 with the mission of leading the company’s expansion project.
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The year 2022 will be marked by the largest release cycle in the company’s history and expansion to new markets in Latin America. At Agrishow, Grunner presented to the market new products that can be used for new applications. Next to the current ATR model for hauling harvested sugarcane, Grunner now offers the models ASP (for application of liquid fertilisers) and ADS (for distribution of solids).
The autonomous technology is targeted at the sugarcane, forestry and grain sectors. As it uses georeferencing technology and autonomous driving, the trucks can also operate in the mining and airport sectors.