Driverless Tractors Are Getting Ready for Harvest Season
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Cereals, a giant trade fair for British crop farmers, is a bit of a social occasion for people whose line of work often leaves them isolated. At last year’s event—a mass of tents, booths, and refreshment stands in fields in the English county of Lincolnshire—many visitors wore neat tweed or wax jackets above their waterproof wellington boots, and some accessorized with neckties and flat caps. LG Seeds showed off varieties of winter barley not far from the enormous machines sold by New Holland and Horsch. In one of the fields, a more modest model, a small blue tractor manufactured by the Japanese company Iseki & Co. drove a figure eight in the wet grass of a fenced-in enclosure without anyone sitting in its seat.
As the Iseki tractor traced its path between spaced-out bales of straw, an orange inflatable tube with a white faux head and arms periodically unfurled near the point where the figure-eight tracks crossed. It was a scarecrow called the Scarey Man, manufactured by the British company Clarratts Ltd., which in this case played the role of a hypothetical pedestrian who might wander into the tractor’s path. Each time the Scarey Man ballooned up in its way, the Iseki ground to a halt several feet back. A lidar scanner, a sensor that measures distances using laser light, detected the obstacle, and the tractor’s software ordered it to stop.
“You can see that the tractor is driving in a lot more controlled manner than maybe our first-generation machine,” said Kit Franklin, who was pacing the arena and narrating the tractor’s moves via microphone. “We’ve got really nice straight runs in the middle and nice, uniform corners.”
Franklin, 30, is a lecturer in agricultural engineering at Harper Adams University, a farming-focused school in the county of Shropshire. He also runs the Hands Free Farm initiative, a team that aims to ramp up agricultural automation and suddenly looks especially prescient. In 2016, working on a skeleton budget of £199,000 (about $246,000), Franklin and three colleagues set a goal of farming a single hectare (about 2½ acres) fenced off near a rugby pitch on the Harper Adams campus without any direct human assistance. The initial money came from Innovate UK, a British government research fund, and Precision Decisions, a company acquired in 2018 by agricultural researcher Map of Ag.
The team acquired machinery that it retrofitted with off-the-shelf drone electronics and actuators, including a small Iseki tractor and a quarter-century-old Sampo Rosenlew combine. The small machinery reflected Franklin’s limited financing, but also a broader philosophy. In many parts of the world, the limiting factor in agriculture has been the cost of labor, hence a trend for ever-larger machines that can cover more ground in less time. However, larger machines tend to compact the soil, reducing crop yields. Franklin’s team is trying to facilitate the proliferation of smaller, lighter farm equipment that can cover the same ground as the behemoth models while preserving soil quality.
Jonathan Gill, the team’s robotics expert, shifted to agriculture after several years of running remotely operated underwater vehicles on oil rigs in the North Sea. For the farming prototypes, he devised an unconventional approach to retrieve crop samples without venturing into the field. “We just got a poop scoop, put some really sharp blades on the end of it, and then flew it underneath the drone,” he says. “We grabbed and stripped the heads off [the crop] and brought it back and dropped it into a bucket. It was perfect.”
The Harper Adams researchers harvested 4½ metric tons (about 5 U.S. tons) of spring barley their first year and 6½ metric tons of winter wheat in 2018. The first year they worked with a brewery and a distillery to make beer and flavored gin from the crop. The second year they milled the wheat and used it to make pizza at the side of the field, demonstrating a field-to-fork process.
Their success attracted another order of magnitude’s worth of financial support, including an additional £1.6 million from the British government. The money enabled Franklin to team with the U.K. division of Farmscan AG, an Australian company that specializes in precision agriculture. The next goal is a full hands-free farm—moving from a single, simple fenced area to 35 hectares spread in the surrounding countryside. This larger project will involve fields with more varied terrain, multiple small vehicles working simultaneously in the same field, and eventually vehicles driving themselves to and from storage sheds and negotiating their own paths into and out of fields. (They’ll go driverless on publicly accessible tracks, but not roads.)
Work on the three-year project began in 2019, but it’s faced a number of setbacks. First came a torrentially wet autumn in Britain, with widespread flooding that prevented the Hands Free Farm team from planting any crops. “It’s just been relentless,” Franklin says. The ground had finally dried out by March, just in time for Britain’s coronavirus lockdown to begin. Still, the team remains optimistic it will be able to harvest at least one field remotely this year. In a few days last month, after lockdown restrictions eased somewhat, researchers used the autonomous machines to plant what’s known as a cover crop to protect the soil. Conventional, manned machines planted the field they intend to harvest autonomously. They’ve also been refining their hardware and software, as well as developing a trackside sensor system to help their machines steer clear of stray pedestrians or vehicles.
The Hands Free Farm sits at an odd angle to industry. High-end commercial tractors are already capable of a high degree of automation, including by using advanced real-time GPS software to drive superhumanly straight lines. In areas with large, flat fields, such as the U.S. Midwest, farmers can watch Netflix or answer email while the machines mostly operate themselves. Some feature onboard fridges and massage seats. Yet these tractors still legally require a human at the wheel to handle more complex maneuvers and for legal and regulatory cover. Major manufacturers are also loath to cannibalize their own business lines with fully autonomous models, Franklin says.
“Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is a complete ripping up of the current marketplace for agricultural machines,” he says. “It comes down to farmers demanding it.”
There are some signs of that demand. Small Robot Co., a British startup, has raised more than £3 million worth of crowdfunding for a range of robots it says will be able to map and zap weeds. At the most recent Agritechnica, a trade show held near Hanover, Germany, John Deere showed off a concept electric cabless tractor, though it had to be plugged in.
At last year’s Cereals show, some onlookers complained that Franklin’s project also didn’t look ready for prime time. “I wouldn’t want a rat’s nest in the back of it, I know that,” remarked local agricultural contractor Mark Goatley, referring to the machine’s mess of wires. Jim Godfrey, who farms in nearby North Lincolnshire, said he was interested in automating some of his farm’s more tedious tasks; he noted that the ubiquitous combine harvester looked similarly far-out when it first appeared.
Greater automation will allow the same number of farmers to reduce their stress and focus on other, more productive goals during the many hours they might otherwise be parked atop a tractor, according to Gill, the robotics expert. Some of the Cereals onlookers remained skeptical. Robert Dunkley, another contractor, said that, at 68, he’d rather keep doing things the old-fashioned way, and not just because he enjoys some of his simpler duties. “If you have that,” he said, indicating the driverless Iseki, “it does me out of a job.”
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