General purpose, completely autonomous (driverless) tractors may be the holy grail of farm equipment design. And over the past few years a wide variety of companies have offered farmers enticing glimpses of what the future may hold in that area. There have been a number of limited-use robotic machines introduced to do specific tasks on the farm. But so far, however, North American fields aren’t exactly crawling with mechanical drones toiling away while owners put their feet up in the farm office.
It may be fair to say, though, it’s only a matter of time until that happens.
In November at Agritechnica 2015, one more market-ready, autonomous tractor was introduced to farmers. And this one is ready — it’s developers say — to work fields or do other jobs on its own. The Dutch-built Greenbot can do about 80 per cent of all typical field jobs, according to Peter Mouthaan, CEO of Dutch Power Company, creator of the Greenbot.
“It’s an autonomous tractor with 100 horsepower, complete with safety devices,” he says. “We’ve developed it in two years. One year of development and building, and testing for one year. Now this is the production version.”
The Greenbot is designed specifically to be as versatile as possible, and to be capable in the field. A Perkins diesel engine provides the power, which is distributed to all four wheels via a hydrostatic drive system. It has both front and rear three-point hitches, hydraulic remotes at both ends and a PTO. It weighs 3,000 kilograms, which makes it a little light when it comes to the typical horsepower-to-weight ratio of a western Canadian field tractor. Top speed is 25 km/h.
Mouthaan’s company has been producing robotic system components for some time and has been a supplier to other companies that have incorporated a variety of autonomous systems, but this is the first full-fledged driverless tractor the company has offered. And it is built entirely of Dutch Power’s own systems, including the computer program software.
The Greenbot can be controlled in several ways. It can be steered remotely, respond to GPS map input, given a specific travel route or taken to a field, given boundaries and allowed to determine its own most efficient travel pattern to complete a job.
“We have three ways to implement the system,” he explains. “You can do it with radio controls — a joystick. You can also put a (GPS) map in that you make on your computer. You can also go out to the field, let the machine go around one time and then say, OK, optimize itself.”
Some farmers who were involved with the initial field trials were a bit sceptical at first, says Mouthaan. But that’s been a familiar pattern with autonomous system introductions. “At first they’re a little bit scared,” he says. “Then they see it working. It’s kind of the same process like when milking robots started.”
“This one is already sold,” he says, as he stands beside one model at the company display in Hanover Germany. “This one is the full-option version. Complete, this one is 150,000 Euros (about CDN$213,000). It does 80 percent of your standardized work in a field.”
Mouthaan says interest from farmers stopping by his booth during Agritechnica has been high. “People have asked at the fair, here, for a 200 hp version,” he adds. “We’ll start with this one, then we’ll go further.”