Stef Ruiter from the flower bulb company Ruiter-Wever in the Netherlands quickly became intrigued by the possibilities of an unmanned tractor on his farm. He sees various ways to integrate the tractor into his business operations.
Following in the footsteps of Dutch farmers Brian Salomé, Ronald Swinkels and Pieter Evenhuis (participants in the National Fieldlab for Precision Farming (NPPL)), Stef Ruiter used the autonomous Steyr tractor to shallowly till grassland. Bulbs will be planted there in October.
Shortly after the tractor’s arrival, it was put to work. This was possible because Dutch bulb grower Ruiter had already set the field contours and line planning for this operation using GPS and had provided this information to the GPX Solutions, the supplier of the iQuus system on the Steyr. They also specified the actions that needed to be performed in the correct sequence when engaging and disengaging the machine.
Based on this information, the route that the tractor needed to follow was pre-programmed. Ruiter mentioned, “I‘ve been told by the GPX folks that they are working on a design for a line program to create that route themselves.” For Ruiter, this is important because it allows him to prepare these routes in advance at a time that suits him, and there is no need for further preparation time just before executing the operation.
Once the routes are created, they can be wirelessly sent to the tractor, and the operator only needs to open the correct route. Koen van Boheemen, who oversees the NPPL practical test with the autonomous Steyr tractor from Wageningen University & Research, noted that Stef Ruiter is in favor of thorough preparation for operations. He currently does this in the form of lines, which are then loaded into his own terminal. He has spoken to others who find the preparation of lines and routes to be inconvenient, making it an interesting point of discussion.
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GPX Solutions made the iQuus-equipped tractor available so NPPL participants can get acquainted with it in their open field crops. In turn, GPX Solutions learns about the specific requirements that users of open field crops have for the iQuus system.
In fruit farming, for which the automation was originally designed, learning the system is as simple as going around the orchard once with the sprayer and once with the flail mower. After that, the tractor can autonomously replicate what it has learned.
In open field crops with changing cultivation plans and various working widths for different operations, the instructions are more complicated. GPX has therefore explicitly chosen a different approach for open field crops because the operations change frequently and learning is often impractical.
Stef Ruiter sees immediate potential for an unmanned tractor on his farm during bulb planting. He mentioned, “We shallowly till just before planting, almost in consecutive work passes. It’s not very complicated to keep an eye on an unmanned plow combination from the planting machine. From the planting machine, you continuously see the work being done by the plow, and you could adjust the settings if the soil is too coarse or too fine. These are dynamic adjustments.”
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In the long term, Ruiter sees opportunities to integrate unmanned tractors into his goal of improving soil health. This involves mulching grassland before bulb cultivation, which involves tilling the topsoil shallowly. He explained, “This provides nourishment to the soil and stimulates soil life, moving towards a more regenerative agricultural system. If this could be done with multiple lighter tractors, it would save the soil and reduce the risk of soil compaction, especially in critical situations. At the same time, you maintain capacity without needing additional drivers.”
Ruiter prefers not to speculate on what might be possible in the near future based on what’s currently feasible. However, he envisions a fleet of smaller unmanned machines working around the clock on his farm, collectively providing the same capacity but with less weight.
Ruiter also has some requests and recommendations for unmanned tractors. He would like a logger that precisely records what the machine has done in specific locations. Additionally, he would like to receive mobile phone notifications for any malfunctions. He realizes that the latter is a separate development, possibly involving smart machines with sensors on the plow’s axle. In this context, he considers the need to continuously press a button to keep the tractor running as an interim solution. In this test, either a button must be continuously pressed or someone must sit in the tractor seat to keep the tractor working.
For now, Ruiter prefers the concept of an unmanned working tractor over a completely driverless robot tractor without a cab, which is not designed for a driver. “With this system, you have a tractor that can work unmanned in the field. But if you flip a switch, you can also use it on the road with a trailer for transporting bulbs.” Ruiter commends GPX Solutions for their proactive role in agriculture. He admires their dedication, which he believes accelerates the development of unmanned tractor technology.
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