Evolution from tractor to robot
With 1000+ different tractor models, roughly 2 million tractors are sold per year.
Early days, operating a tractor was with heavy clutches and big handles.
Now, we're pressing buttons to control the tractors operations on the field. And some brilliant engineers made those buttons remote. And added dedicated software for planning, optimization and measurement: The agriculture robot was born.
History David Brown 880
So what's it that we don't see this one as the conventional tractor of today anymore? A total of 19.000 of this tractor-type have been produced.
Providing less damage to the soil than current tractors, And who doesn't remember the frontwheels lifting off with a heavy trailer. Or sitting in the middle of dust, rain or just the sun...
Today New Holland TVT 135
This can be the example of today's tractor. It has universal three-point hitch, hydraulics and towbar. Steering by RTK GPS.
There are dozens of tractor brands. New Hollands only, already offers 83 different models. Where for each model, track dimensions and dozens of other options are available.
Technical details of the David Brown 880
Tomorrow Agrointelli Robotti
With multiple machines running in different countries, the Agrointelli Robotti is performing multiple field operations already.
However, machines (seen online and offline) have to be adapted in order to fit. There is no standardized fit available. For this, auto steer kits for tractors (like sabanto) seem to do the job.
Future Agxeed Agbot
While the Agxeed Agbot prototype seem to perform heavy work already flawless, development is ongoing to have this robot operating autonomous in big numbers.
The Agbot is operated via a dedicated software platform. This should enable optimal task planning and continuous measurement.
Technical details of the Agxeed Agbot in 2022
The dominant factor: reduce human work
One person can do the same job with this tractor, that multiple people could perform (eventually with horses).
One person can do the same job, that multiple people could perform on smaller tractors. And on top, with more precision and more comfort.
Machine may have slightly less capacity each, however one person can operate multiple machines at the same time.
One person operate multiple high-performance machine at the same time. Executing precisely measured field and self-optimizing machinery.
The side effect: specialization
One tractor, does it all
In the early days, tractors have been fundamentally used (and abused) to execute all kind of tasks in agriculture.
Easy to operate by driver
With a steer and a few handles, this tractor is easy to learn driving. Not many configurations need to be done, in order execute work in the field. The driver needs to know which field to operate and what task to do. The tractor does not need to know this.
A robot per group of tasks
A universal hitch, focused on fixed driving lanes and the power for all kind of (PTO powered) tasks. In a nutshell how one can summarize the Agrointelli Robotti. It can perform a lot of tasks, however it's may exceed less in a particular task.
Software helps operator
Manual steering to bring the robot to the field, however at the field you'd better leave it up to the machine: An optimal route will be created, based on the activity that has been set. This settings can be made by the actual operator or by another person upfront, for example the farmer with the dedicated field knowledge. The operator will be informed and takes only care of exceptional situation during operations.
A tractor per group of tasks
Currently, tractors are purchased for a set of tasks. While some may be more lightweight and focused on nurturing tasks others may more power-full for heavy tillage and transport jobs.
Needs a few skills to operate
Steering on RTK GPS requires some setting and with section or other machine controls connected, a bigger part of the driving will be done by the tractor. Therefore, it's more complex and more tractor specific to configure. Many configurations need to be done, in order execute work in the field. The driver still needs to know which field to operate and what task to do. However, the tractor also needs to know this.
does it all
Agxeed Agbot has more flexibility towards jobs in mind to be done: Typically the more power-demanding job, for which operations are less complicated can already be done. However, by easily switching to smaller tracks (on the same machine) also crop care can be done. Smarter tooling may become conditional.
Software supports decisions
Integrating cross-machine measurements and activities, can be done by a software package. The robot is becoming 'just a tool' to execute software recommended activities.
Are agriculture robots more sustainable than tractors?
Possibly, but not proven (yet). The sustainability of agriculture robots vs tractors depends on many factors. The usage itself is key: Robots may enable a more sustainable way of farming. Some elements from the machines itself are listed below as considerations. Please note, this is not a complete list. For example the way of producing the machines, the choice of tires (or tracks), skills of operators, etc. are also all key factors that make difference.
Engine and powertrain - The biggest contrast is between the David Brown 880 and the Agrointelli Robotti. The David Brown 880 has a fairly directs drive shaft from engine to the wheels and machine by PTO, by manual gearbox. In contrast, the Agrointelli has electrical controlled hydraulic power train. It's enabling smaller wheels to be places on a larger track width, without an axle in the middle (in benefit of the possible machine and crops between the wheels). The downside of this electric hydraulic powertrain from a sustainability perspective, is the lower power efficiency. The Agxeed Agbot has an electrical powertrain, which requires more complex software. However, it's expected provide a higher efficiency compared to hydraulics. This powertrain is well know to be applied in trains (diesel-electric).
Precision and optimization - There seems no doubt that tractors with RTK GPS drive more accurate than manual steering. Therefore, increased efficiency in field operations. Robots can take this one step further, as also the routing in the field can be optimized and is even done with high precision. Enabling less 'travel' for the same work to be done. However, at least not a ducksize, there is not complete data set available of the impact to make the eco-system vs the benefit of it. E.g. the power consumptions of the servers for dedicated software, the GPS receivers, material to make it.
Lightweight - Although ambitions and for example the shared research and development of Agrointelli and Dewulf on lightweight machinery by robotics, the fact is that machinery earlier where already lighter in history. The economies of scale did win the fight towards bigger tractors, to reduce human work. And the question is if the economies of scale won't win again - if an expensive control and sensor setting for robots can control a 3.00 meter machine... why not making it a 6.00 meter machine. Saving also human work for refilling the planter (in the example of Agrointelli and Dewulf). The reasoning that multiple small robots can do the job of one tractor, with even less human work can be true ... but... looking forward to see this being proven on the fields, in the near future. The sweet spot for a robot here seems to be strip cropping - where conventional tractors simply cannot scale, due to the field set-up is requiring smaller dimensions. In these scenario, the robot may be the key to combine 'inefficient' small-size to be operated with less human labor. Additionally, they have an unique possibility: A track-width of 3.15m, meanwhile not an 'oversize load' transport. By being transported perpendicular to the road-direction.
Tires & tracks - A redesign of tractors is made with new design principles. The Agrointelli Robotti and Agbot Axgeed are key examples to show this. The Agbot Agxeed is focussed on traction, low soil pressure per cm2. See the big tracks on the right side (also available to be delivered on smaller tracks with 3.15m track-width for strip cropping).
While in contrast, with the Agrointelli Robotti there are smaller wheels in order to fit other design ideas. Fixed driving lanes seem to be conditional with this machine, if the farmer doesn't want the 'small' wheels with 2,0+ bar compacting the soil, where plants are growing.
Experts in agriculture robot operations
The only company in the world that now operates all the machines on the picture is doorgrond. So also, they did drive the machines here for this picture. This Dutch enterprise is created to be specialist in enabling robots on farms. Robots due reduce human work, but doorgrond optimizes this integration in the current ecosystem of a farm.
What the experts at Doorgrond like best, look to the future with robots: "We see that the robots can take over and control the work, so a farmer can focus more and more on the cultivation and the soil. The farmer can learn more with the data that is extracted in order to subsequently increase its return "
What they'll miss the most, looking at the David Brown: "The older tractors will of course also remain a 'picture', all of them have their own story and are unique to have. But the little robots can do the same job as the old David Brown. One human can control more of those little robots. That's necessarily to beat the capacity of the big tractors."
Many thanks for lining up the machines and reviewing the article to Doorgrond (Jeroen Wolters, Han Hilbrands, Jorick Lambers). Also thanks for review to Agxeed (Philipp Kamps) and Abemec (Thijs van der Ven) for the Agbot and Robotti information, respectively.
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