Robotisation: implement makers ahead of tractor manufacturers

18-12-2020 | |
The Magnum-size Case IH concept imagines a tractor with sufficient automation that it no longer needs a cab. - Photo: CNHi
The Magnum-size Case IH concept imagines a tractor with sufficient automation that it no longer needs a cab. - Photo: CNHi

The prospect of autonomous tractors performing field operations autonomously is still just a promise for the vast majority of farmers around the world. But, once the economics are right and legislators allow it, things may rapidly change.

Easton Field needs post-harvest cultivations, but in the office, there’s a whole bunch of paperwork waiting to be completed – bills to pay, grants to claim, assurance documents to complete, cropping plans to prepare, and seed orders to place. And there’s a truck load of fertiliser coming that will need to be unloaded and a couple of grain lorries to fill as soon as they arrive in the yard.

‘Now Entirely Driverless tractor’

But never mind, ‘Ned’ will get the cultivations done. That’s the affectionate name given to the Now Entirely Driverless tractor that the farm has invested in to help cope with a routine workload alongside one highly skilled operator who focuses on crop spraying, fertiliser spreading and precision sowing.

With the route to Easton Field selected on Ned’s cloud-based management system, together with the ‘primary cultivation’ programme, Ned is powered up and the automatic power unit and implement systems check is completed. Then, after using the on-board 360º camera system for a visual safety appraisal via the office computer dashboard, it’s time to press ‘green for go’.

A far-fetched scenario?

Not really when the technology is mostly already available; all that’s holding it back is the cost, the justification and the fact that in regions such as Europe, driverless operation is not yet permitted. Judging by recent concepts and significant investments in the relevant technologies, tractor manufacturers clearly envisage a time when remote operation will become viable.

Case IH Autonomous Concept Vehicle

When Case IH unveiled the Magnum-sized Autonomous Concept Vehicle in 2016, the engineers behind it clearly imagined a tractor with sufficient automation that it would no longer need a cab. Looking beyond the type of work such a tractor could undertake, they also understood the work/life balance that autonomy could bring, relieving drivers of the monotony of long hours spent on routine tasks and enabling employers to make better use of their skills.

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The Magnum-size Case IH concept imagines a tractor with sufficient automation that it no longer needs a cab. - Photo: CNHi

The Magnum-size Case IH concept imagines a tractor with sufficient automation that it no longer needs a cab. – Photo: CNHi

“Adding an autonomous tractor to a farm’s operation could have a wider impact on how the business is managed,” said Dan Stuart of CNH. “So we‘ve worked closely with test farms to assess not just the machine’s practical uses and performance, but also how autonomous operation might affect areas such as the use of labour, logistics and efficient use of inputs.”

John Deere

John Deere’s vision of how a future self-driving tractor might look is more radical still – it loses the diesel tank, DEF tank, cab and traditional transmission that take up so much space on a conventional tractor.

Instead, it runs on a single axle with a (theoretically for now) 500kW power pack delivering 250kW shared between the tractor axle and electric wheel or track drive on the implement. The remaining 250kW would be available for the power take-off and hydraulics.

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  • Fendt’s GuideConnect provides a communications link for ‘follow me’ operation of two tractors by a single operator. - Photo: Agco

    Fendt’s GuideConnect provides a communications link for ‘follow me’ operation of two tractors by a single operator. – Photo: Agco

  • John Deere’s radical self-driving power unit concept imagines an electric drive being shared by a single-axle tractor and the implements it operates. - Photo: John Deere

    John Deere’s radical self-driving power unit concept imagines an electric drive being shared by a single-axle tractor and the implements it operates. – Photo: John Deere

Kubota ‘X Tractor – Cross Tractor’

Kubota’s take on the future shape and form of self-driving tractors also envisages developments in electric power that will deliver sufficient capacity for long enough to be practical for a hard-working machine. The ‘X Tractor – Cross Tractor’ would also be equipped with height adjustment to suit different crops and terrain, and artificial intelligence to enable it to ‘learn’ on the job for optimised navigation, implement operation and cost reduction.

Apart from commemorating the manufacturer’s 130 years, Kubota’s primary motivation for exploring autonomy is Japan’s rapidly ageing and declining population of farmers and a trend towards consolidation of many small family farms into fewer larger businesses.

That is also why it launched the AgriRobo tractor – an otherwise regular production machine equipped with self-driving technologies – for practical field tests in 2018. Kubota notes that “AgriRobo allows the operator to plan, modify and control all autonomous operations, with control and safety systems ensuring that the tractor does not perform dangerous manoeuvres.”

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Kubota’s imaginative X Tractor concept has variable ground clearance, tracks, electric power and no seat for an operator. - Photo: Kubota

Kubota’s imaginative X Tractor concept has variable ground clearance, tracks, electric power and no seat for an operator. – Photo: Kubota

Yanmar, Mahindra and others have developed self-driving technologies for standard tractors for similar reasons, while New Holland cited flexibility of use for its NHDrive concept, which is a New Holland Genesis with a regular cab and controls.

This recognises that in the near term at least tractors that can operate on their own at times will need a driver at others, either because of the work being carried out, because a complex implement or machine needs close monitoring, or because journeys between yard and field involve public roads.

Developed in collaboration with Autonomous Solutions Inc, the NHDrive tractor can be monitored and controlled via a desktop or portable tablet computer. It provides its remote operator with real-time tractor and implement data, a path plotting display and up to four real-time camera views – two at the front and two at the rear. Data from implement sensors, such as seed rate and coulter downforce on a planter, would also be accessible to enable real-time fine tuning from a remote location.

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Flexibility is the watchword for the New Holland NHDrive because it can operate autonomously or conventionally when a driver is needed for implement monitoring. - Photo: CNHI

Flexibility is the watchword for the New Holland NHDrive because it can operate autonomously or conventionally when a driver is needed for implement monitoring. – Photo: CNHI

Slave tractors and grain carts

AGCO’s exploration of remote tractor control began with the Fendt GuideConnect system − first revealed in 2011 − which enabled control inputs on a lead tractor to be repeated on a second. This so-called ‘follow me’ approach enables one operator to achieve double the productivity while retaining the flexibility that both tractors could also operate individually.

In addition to accepting commands via wireless radio communication, the ‘slave’ tractor reported its engine and ground speed, error status, low fuel level and other relevant data to keep the lead driver informed.

With a 5G connection, a tractor can be driven remotely from anywhere, even hundreds of kilometres away

AGCO’s Valtra unit has focused on physical but remote tractor operation, using a 3G mobile phone connection initially but most recently a 5G connection and 360º camera vision. Mikko Lehikoinen of Valtra says: “Radio-controlled tractors have been in use for years, but you always needed to stay within sight of the machine. With a 5G connection, a tractor can be driven remotely from anywhere, even hundreds of kilometres away.”

The low latency of 5G is said to provide an immediate response and feedback, while the use of a virtual reality headset connected to the vision system gives the remote operator the feeling of being present on the tractor while sitting in a quiet and comfortable environment with none of the pitching and rolling that are characteristic of real tractor driving.

Crop cart tractor as the ideal guinea pig

Pioneers of self-driving technology chose the humble crop cart tractor as the ideal guinea pig, giving harvester operators the power to call up a unit for unloading grain without a driver needing to be present at all times. It’s effectively an extension of the remote control available to combine operators today to accurately position and co-ordinate the speed of the tractor and cart beneath the unloading spout.

Grain chaser manufacturer Kinze was among the first to introduce self-driving technology, which led to a system that could operate with multiple combines and multiple carts in the same field. When a combine needed to off-load on the move, the system would automatically select the tractor and cart outfit that could meet that call most efficiently.

Today, Kinze has paused development “due to weak agricultural market conditions and many farmers not quite being ready for fully autonomous technology.”

Raven Industries is more optimistic

But precision farming specialist Raven Industries is more optimistic, acquiring Smart Ag, the company behind the AutoCart system, to add to its Raven Autonomy portfolio. “Smart Ag was founded with the vision of becoming the autonomous farming platform of choice in a driverless future,” says Dan Rykhus of Raven Industries. “Autonomy in agriculture is the future of farming and Smart Ag has developed retrofit kits to automate farm equipment as well as a platform to connect, manage and safely operate autonomous agricultural machinery.”

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  • With its acquisition of AutoCart technology, Raven Industries is confident that autonomy for existing tractors will extend to tillage farming….

    With its acquisition of AutoCart technology, Raven Industries is confident that autonomy for existing tractors will extend to tillage farming….

  • …but also sees a future in bespoke self-driving platforms such as the DOT. - Photos: Raven Industries

    …but also sees a future in bespoke self-driving platforms such as the DOT. – Photos: Raven Industries

DOT implement carrier

Raven has also acquired the DOT bespoke autonomous implement carrier, which is big enough to operate regular-sized equipment such as a 10 m³ (287 ft³) New Leader crop nutrient applicator, a 6000-litre (1600 gal), 36 m (120 ft) Pattison sprayer and a 9 m SeedMaster grain drill.

Is there a real future for autonomous vehicles?

It’s already happening in the livestock sector where manufacturers such as Lely, Kuhn, Triolet, Jeantil and Lucas-G sell fully automated feeding systems and self-driving feeders, with Lely also moving into the field by exploring a concept for a self-driving grass harvester for zero-grazing delivery of fresh grass to housed cattle.

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An attractive promise, that's what autonomous robots still are right now. - Photo: Jacto

An attractive promise, that’s what autonomous robots still are right now. – Photo: Jacto

But the transition to new forms of power unit for tillage farming – such as the DOT – will take time before it reaches a substantial scale. In the meantime, manufacturers with huge investments in infrastructure for producing traditional tractors will surely focus their efforts on giving them sophisticated self-driving capability and management.

There are numerous projects under way across the world involving autonomous agricultural vehicles. The majority of these concern (small) robots and small to medium-sized tractors. One manufacturer dared to work on large tractors. We took a detailed look at 21 projects around the world.

Hill
Peter Hill Machinery writer