Last October, AGCO’s Fendt brand had a lot it wanted to talk about publicly, and it wasn’t about to let COVID-19 prevent that from happening. The brand live-streamed a digital press conference online. A few European farm machinery writers and editors were physically present at the event held at the Marktoberdorf, Germany, brand headquarters and primary assembly plant.
Most of us who attended were only “virtually” there. While that avoided the need to board a long-haul flight across the Atlantic and suffer the inevitable jet lag to attend it, it did mean getting a 4:00 a.m. start, due to the time difference.
Included in the new announcements made by corporate executives was an update on the brand’s Xaver autonomous field seeder project. The company first introduced Xaver to the world at Agritechnica 2017. The small, then-60-kilogram drones were created to work on the “swarm concept,” where many small machines swarm over a field to seed it. Xaver, originally known as the MARS project (an acronym for Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms) began as a research effort of the European Commission.
“We started with a research project funded by the European Commission in May of 2015,” explained Thiemo Buchner, project lead at Fendt Robotics during the 2017 Agritechnica show. “The research part lasted 18 months. In October of 2016, we finished the research. After that, it was completely taken over by AGCO.”
That was the story three years ago, but since their first public introduction the R&D work has continued. And the Xaver robots have undergone a significant redesign. Now, executives say, the project is nearing commercial release.
“Xaver is in the second generation already,” Heribert Reiter, vice-president engineering AGCO tractors, said during the October press event. “We learned so much from the first one. As far as viability and practice is concerned, we’re close to it (commercial release).”
“The new series of Xaver sowing robots differs from the last two studies, in more than just appearance,” explains the brand’s official announcement. “The inner workings, the ‘seed units’ are also completely new.”
“We were able to adapt the modules of the first Xaver generation and combine them with the new seed unit,” says Benno Pichlmaier, director global technology and innovation. “Proven concepts have been combined with the innovative robotics design, which has led to a new, integrated system.”
The new design
Xaver robots have now evolved into a bigger, three-wheel design that incorporates seeding technology brought over from AGCO’s Precision Planting arm. That new design offers advantages.
The machines can now make much tighter headland turns. Added front wheel weights provide greater coulter pressure for sowing in loamy soils. Fully ballasted, the robots now weigh in at 250 kilograms (less than 150 kilograms empty). The seed tank capacity has grown to 20 litres, enough for around 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) at 90,000 seeds per hectare.
The capacity of the lithium-ion battery has been increased to 2.6 kilowatt hours. A Xaver unit can work for about 1.5 hours before it needs to return to the base station for charging. That is done at a base station trailer that not only recharges and reloads them, but is used to haul the swarm between work locations.
The robots are able to plant seeds with centimetre accuracy and now incorporate sensors that measure soil moisture, temperature and plant residues. Based on that real-time data, the robots vary the seed depth according to the conditions.
A swarm of six robots can seed about six acres per hour. While that doesn’t sound impressive on its own, remember Xavers are designed to work continuously. In a full 24-hour day that’s 120 acres.
Relying on electric drive, Fendt says they can significantly reduce CO2 emissions, and they apply 80 per cent less ground pressure on soil than a conventional high-horsepower tractor and drill.
“The cornerstones of our swarm system are scalability in terms of investment costs and impact, minimizing failure risks from robot redundancy, and integrating autonomy and precision farming,” adds Pichlmaier.
“After sowing with the Xaver, it ‘maps’ all the useful crops in the field, and we can use this for all our follow-up work, such as plant protection, mechanical weed control and fertilization. Regardless of whether this is done by robots or tractors. The prerequisite for swarm technology is a reliable network coverage for communication. Going forward, we will use the imminent implementation of the digital strategy with a 5G network expansion in Germany and worldwide.”
But that last statement describes the biggest obstacle to Xaver at the moment in Western Canada — the need for widespread, reliable, broadband coverage. At the moment, just getting cellphone coverage in some areas remains a challenge. However, once that concern is eliminated, the brand thinks the use of Xaver systems will be virtually unlimited.
Said Reiter, “As to which markets we will tap, I don’t see any limit whatsoever, because the control of Xaver is via the cloud. Wherever that is available, you can use it.”
And when asked at the press conference if there were any other autonomous tractor projects in the works at Fendt, Reiter acknowledged the brand was working on one for vineyard tractors.
“Like the automotive industry, we are looking into autonomous projects, these are pre-production. The project is still in the development and research phase.”