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Working with an unmanned autonomous tractor? Bulb grower is cautiously optimistic

Dutch bulb grower Sjaak Huetink is interested in automation and autonomy, but he didn't immediately warm up to the idea of testing an autonomous tractor on his farm. - Photos: Koos Groenewold."
Dutch bulb grower Sjaak Huetink is interested in automation and autonomy, but he didn't immediately warm up to the idea of testing an autonomous tractor on his farm. - Photos: Koos Groenewold."

For several weeks, eight Dutch farmers and horticulturists have tested the possibilities and limitations of unmanned autonomous tractors on their farms. Dutch bulb grower Sjaak Huetink is interested in automation and autonomy. He tested an autonomous Steyr Expert 4130 CVT for two days on his fields. Final conclusion: cautiously optimistic. “As soon as an autonomous vehicle can operate for a minimum of 1,000 hours per year and work 24/7 without supervision, we‘re on board.”

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At first, bulb grower Sjaak Huetink wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about trying out an autonomous tractor under the National Fieldlab for Precision Farming (NPPL). The conditions were too wet, too busy, and his preference leaned more towards a field robot. That is until he could gain a few days of experience with it.

Huetink likes to be at the forefront of cultivating lily bulbs, first-year onion plants, sown onions, and, in recent years, sedum mats for green roofs.

When cultivation and mechanization become specialized, Huetink is eager to adopt. It’s not surprising that Sjaak and Henri Huetink, along with some employees, are interested in automation and autonomy, as evidenced by Huetink’s participation in NPPL. However, he wasn’t immediately enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with the Steyr Expert 4130 CVT equipped with the iQuus autonomous technology from GPX Solutions.

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Dutch bulb grower Sjaak Huetink: 'We are seriously exploring an autonomous vehicle that can perform a number of tedious and lengthy tasks for us.
Dutch bulb grower Sjaak Huetink: 'We are seriously exploring an autonomous vehicle that can perform a number of tedious and lengthy tasks for us.

Wet fields and too busy

“It had a lot to do with the moisture in the fields where we would use the Steyr and the busyness on our farm,” says Sjaak. “If we do something, we want to do it right, which means you need to make time for it. When the tractor became available, we couldn’t free up the right employees, so I initially canceled its arrival.”

We are indeed seriously exploring an autonomous vehicle

It was also related to the company’s plan to invest in a field robot within the next five years. An autonomous vehicle without a cabin. “We are indeed seriously exploring an autonomous vehicle that can perform some tedious and lengthy tasks for us. Think of shredding and milling fields in the spring, which happens continuously for six weeks and is not the most motivating work. Or pulling stems in the lilies. But that alone is insufficient for such an investment. We are on board as soon as an autonomous vehicle can operate for at least 1,000 hours per year and work 24/7 without supervision on-site.”

Unmanned combinations require supervision

Back to the experiences with the Steyr Expert 4130 CVT, where Huetink eventually worked for two days. Sjaak Huetink: “Precision agriculture expert Koen van Boheemen was very persistent in his opinion that an autonomous tractor would fit well on our farm. When the tractor became available again, we made time for it.”

Read also: Getting started smoothly with unmanned tractors through proper preparation

Before the tractor arrived, a few suitable fields and tasks were selected, and there was also much contemplation about the possibilities and impossibilities of autonomy. Huetink says, “Initially, there were mainly questions about the combination of the tractor with an implement like a disc harrow. What happens if the trailing roller gets full? Or if something breaks? Now, the tractor driver supervises. Solutions must be found when a tractor really works unmanned.”

The plan was to let the autonomous Steyr Expert 4130 CVT disc harrow two fields as a preparation for the power harrowing. The Steyr would lead, followed by Huetink’s employee Frank Zaalberg, with the remote control of the Steyr in hand. Most of Huetink’s tractors are equipped with an automatic steering system. The two fields were chosen because they were quite rough and required two soil treatments.

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The first field is being 'worked' for the second time for the image recordings. By skipping some passes, turning at the headland is more efficient. However, since the tractor doesn't autonomously reverse, a considerable headland is still required.
The first field is being 'worked' for the second time for the image recordings. By skipping some passes, turning at the headland is more efficient. However, since the tractor doesn't autonomously reverse, a considerable headland is still required.

In-house route planning needed

To work on the first field, Huetink sent the field boundary, the AB lines of the field, and the working width of the disc harrow to GPX Solutions for creating a route plan. It was returned, and then the route was set on the terminal of the Steyr.

“It went quite well on that first field,” concludes Huetink. “The field was well outlined by GPX Solutions. Because Frank followed the Steyr with the Claas tractor, towing the rotary harrow, it was not a problem to continuously hold the remote control with the green button pressed. But as mentioned, autonomy is only interesting for us if we can leave the vehicle alone, without direct supervision. Otherwise, I still lose an employee who might as well be on the tractor. Therefore, I see the iQuus system we worked with as a temporary solution. There are solutions that better suit our needs.”

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Significant disadvantage

The photos for this report were supposed to be taken on a second field. The fact that they were taken on the first field, according to Huetink, immediately illustrates a significant disadvantage of the current approach for him. “On our farm, we have been planning all field boundaries, AB lines, work lines, and activities ourselves in Farm Works for ten years. Mostly in winter, but definitely well before the work takes place. We know exactly whether an AB line is for soil cultivation, sowing/planting, and/or crop protection. I don’t want to hand over that planning and the accompanying data. I also don’t want to depend on someone else for that.”

Frank adds, “Moreover, I just call or message the office if an AB line on one of the many rented fields needs to be adjusted. Then I immediately receive the updated AB line and route planning wirelessly. That doesn’t happen with the iQuus system we worked with.”

It resulted in the autonomous Steyr on the second oddly shaped field picking the wrong AB line. After two hours of struggling, Huetink decided to ‘work’ the previously processed field again for the image recordings.”

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Koerhuis
René Koerhuis Precision Farming Specialist





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