​The journey of developing an Unmanned Ground Vehicle

Robotics Plus recently launched its autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle. The Robotics Plus team at FIRA USA. Left to right: Robotics Plus founders Dr Alistair Scarfe (CTO) and Steve Saunders (CEO) with Chief Commercial Officer Nathan Soich. - Photo: Robotics Plus
The Robotics Plus team at FIRA USA. Left to right: Robotics Plus founders Dr Alistair Scarfe (CTO) and Steve Saunders (CEO) with Chief Commercial Officer Nathan Soich. - Photo: Robotics Plus

Robotics Plus recently launched its autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle. “It is exciting”, Steve Saunders, Co-founder and CEO says. “It has been a lot of work to get to the final design.”

The New Zealand company presented its UGV at FIRA USA 2022. It was an opportunity to release the new vehicle to the market, along with the brand Robotics Plus, Mr Saunders points out.

“I think we brought a new perspective to the concept that other people are also working on. People were really excited by our hybrid approach. Having a fully electric vehicle, powered by a diesel motor, proved to be quite powerful. I joined a panel where farmers thought we were pro-electrification. But the infrastructure of farmers is not ready to go fully electric. One of my customers has 296 tractors. How do you plug in 296 electric vehicles?”

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Farmers have sustainable goals to meet

The other side of the coin, Mr Saunders says, is that farmers have sustainable goals to meet. “In California or other parts of America for example. The fact that our vehicle has lower carbon emissions, gives us a sustainable approach, especially compared to the vehicles of our competitors like GUSS, that have a very large industrial 170 horsepower diesel engine and stainless steel everywhere.”

The Unmanned Ground Vehicle of Robotics Plus has been designed from the ground up to be modular and easy to service. Operators can keep their vehicles running if a part fails by simply swapping out modules when needed. “So, we can also quickly adapt the platform to other formats. This is not a one-single-use machine but a multiple-use platform.”

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The Robotics Plus team has been working quietly in the background, just to work out the concept, while trialling different things, Mr Saunders says. - Photo: Robotics Plus
The Robotics Plus team has been working quietly in the background, just to work out the concept, while trialling different things, Mr Saunders says. - Photo: Robotics Plus

Tested in hot dry conditions

Robotics Plus announced mid-2020 that it was beta testing its first UGVs. In the last two years the company has been refining its autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle vehicle. “We have been working on the modular concept for several years. This is our fifth generation UGV”, Mr Saunders explains. “We have been working quietly in the background, just to work out the concept, while trialling different things.”

The UGVs were tested in vineyards in New Zealand and in the Napa Valley in the US. “To also test them in the hot dry conditions of the US. From what we have been learning from the testing, we really have been able to develop and refine the final production model that we released.”

Also read: New Zealand’s Robotics Plus beta tests Unmanned Ground Vehicles

It has been a lot of work to get to the final design, Mr Saunders says. “We learned from customer feedback and from the way the machines moved in their environment. We learned to choose the right sort of tanks and how we could modularise everything to keep servicing simple.”

You have the simplicity of doing a diesel engine oil change and the normal maintenance on your tool

“There are no hydraulics, the electric drive systems are fully sealed for life. So, you have the simplicity of doing a diesel engine oil change and the normal maintenance on your tool. The power drive system and the ‘brains’ are modular. If you have a problem with the power system, the computer, or the navigation, you just swap the module out. We also had to make sure that we ended up with a price-point, where the return on investment made sense for growers.”

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The tools for the UGV are swappable and a mowing tool will be next for the customers of Robotics Plus. - Photo: Robotics Plus
The tools for the UGV are swappable and a mowing tool will be next for the customers of Robotics Plus. - Photo: Robotics Plus

Minimising compaction

Robotics Plus has made some important changes to the Unmanned Ground Vehicle, since testing the beta version of the vehicle. “We have improved the electric drive motors, to have a more customised drive system”, Mr Saunders says. “And we worked on getting the same software on the platform across all the software that drives the motors. We have changed the wheel configuration, with bigger wheels on the back, and slightly bigger wheels on the front, to minimise compaction and get better traction.”

The team also moved from a 300-gallon (1,136 litres) tank to a 400-gallon (1,514 litres) tank. “We have generally improved the power generator and worked on a lot more refinement of the systems. We simplified the machine, used more of the same components, and made sure we ended up with a more modular vehicle.”

The team faced several technical challenges during development. “We had to solve problems around navigation and path planning. We learned about cooling systems in hotter conditions for computers and batteries. But our biggest challenge was actually more around the supply chains. Our delays, not getting the vehicle out faster, were caused by this. We really had to understand the supply chains, working towards a supply chain that we know, and to be able to get the costs of the UGVs down to a reasonable price point.”

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CEO Steve Saunders: “The UGVs make sense where there is reasonable amount of scale.” - Photo: Robotics Plus
CEO Steve Saunders: “The UGVs make sense where there is reasonable amount of scale.” - Photo: Robotics Plus

Spraying, based on tree-density

Robotics Plus has partnered with Yamaha Motor Company, to significantly increase the robustness of the vehicle in the demanding environment of agriculture. “The technology was our design, and the components are from around the world, but Yamaha has been great for some guidance around systems. We have had a lot of support on the ground from them. Their engineers were especially supportive during testing in the US. Yamaha provided a lot of resources.”

The UGV-platform can adapt to different crop types with tools for various applications. This should provide growers and orchardists year-round automation benefits. The first application for the technology is intelligent spraying. The system intelligently varies the flow rate to ensure spray efficacy whilst reducing inputs.

“We have developed our own spraying system. We worked with companies like Croplands and modified spray-technology, to go from hydraulic to electric. That has been a good journey. Being able to electrify the spraying system, and having multiple configurations, means that we can control everything individually. Spray rates and airspeed are controlled in zones. We can now really look at more targeted spraying in zones, using less chemicals. Our next step is to automate this, where we can determine tree-density and spray, based on tree-density.”

Mowing tool will be next

The tools for the Unmanned Ground Vehicle are swappable and a mowing tool will be next for the customers of Robotics Plus. “It works just like a tractor. We have already started the process of developing the mowing tool. And then there will be weed control, trimming, where we are working on. Once we will get the vehicle on the market with the sprayer, we will be following with a very close succession of the release of multiple tools.”

Price

Robotics Plus currently mainly focusses on a release of the Unmanned Ground Vehicle in the USA, New Zealand and Australia. The machines, including the sprayer, will be available from August/September 2023. The price will be below $300,000 (Mr Saunders does not want to specify the dollar-currency at this stage). Robotics Plus is still working out the final pricing structure.

The mower will be not much different in price than a standard mower for tractors, Mr Saunders says. “We are currently finalising the price and expect the price to go down a little bit over time.”

Robotics Plus is already taking orders. “We will not be offering robotics as a service. We will sell them, with a subscription. We can consider lease-packages as well. The subscription is there, because there will be ongoing maintenance with software-updates. And there are licenses to pay, for example to Microsoft. But once the subscription reaches a certain number of hours, it will be kept.“

To be able to run ten units with two people, you really need to have a reasonable size orchard

The UGVs make sense where there is reasonable amount of scale, Mr Saunders points out. “To be able to run ten units with two people, you really need to have a reasonable size orchard. One person can monitor, and one can follow the sprayers. We plan to automate this process as well. This is where the economics kick in, when you have two people running multiple machines, because the equivalent of ten UGVs with two people is twelve tractors and sprayers with twelve people. Our machines will probably do a slightly higher average than a tractor driven machine. Our UGVs can significantly eliminate labour but can also help to save on capital. “

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CEO Steve Saunders expects a bright future for autonomous vehicles in the coming years. - Photo: Robotics Plus
CEO Steve Saunders expects a bright future for autonomous vehicles in the coming years. - Photo: Robotics Plus

The number of machines that Robotics Plus produces next year, will be dictated by the market and the supply chain. “We are just starting to take orders, but we are committed to having a release of 20 machines next year. We might produce some more machines at the end of 2023.”

Mr Saunders believes the market for the UGVs has a reasonable size. “First this will be a possibility for growers with apples and wine-grapes. But I can think we will soon be able to do almonds and other crops as well. The most important thing for us, is to form strong partnerships with our customers, and ensuring customer integration goes well and is positive. We do not want to rush and flood the market with hundreds of machines.”

Shifting systems from traditional spraying into automated systems

Shifting systems from traditional spraying into automated systems takes some work, Mr Saunders emphasises. “There is a lot of planning and integration to do, compared to telling a human what to do. Moving from using spray guns to a place with a computer – with a program that asks you what blocks you want to spray and at what rates you want to spray them – needs education and training. We want to do this well, so we are very much focussed on integrating the first machines with our partners. And then we can ramp up this work for others, because a lot of it will be refined.”

Bright future for autonomous vehicles

The Robotics Plus CEO expects a bright future for autonomous vehicles in the coming years. “We have seen a significant year-on-year production growth worldwide. Depending on the crops, there will be a need for thousands of machines a year, long term. There is a huge opportunity in that for autonomous new technology. We think that the market is huge. And with our modular technology, we can move to other crops quite quickly, because of the way we have designed the machine. Ultimately our vision of the company is to help solve the challenges with labour constraint. Overall, it is exciting. It has been a lot of hard work.”

Want know what field robots are currently commercially available, inclusing technical specifications, prices, videos and photos? Check out out Field Robot Buyer’s Guide!

Groeneveld
René Groeneveld Correspondent for Australia



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