Self-propelled tractors, where are we?

Prototypes multiply and the first machines ready for the market arrive. Two threads: futuristic-looking rovers, made by startups, and more traditional vehicles with autonomous driving. The issue of liability in the event of an accident remains to be resolved

Robot tractors are no longer a visionary’s futuristic dream, but a reality. And to realize this, just take a tour of the web or look at the anticipation for Fira World 2023, the big trade show dedicated to robotics. In virtual mode, you can see dozens of autonomous machines for tilling the soil with tasks ranging from sowing to treatments, in specialized farming or open fields.

This is the case with Robotti di Agrointelli, a company that despite its name was born and is headquartered in Denmark. Thanks to a three-point hitch, its tool holder can mount traditional equipment for performing various outdoor activities.

Specific to weeding, on the other hand, Robot One di Pixelfarming Robotics and Claws of Earth Rover. The first has a dozen arms that can be equipped with various tools for mechanical weeding, the second shoots light rays at the base of the weeds and causes their death.

Other vending machines monitor crops in the field or work in small spaces, such as those in greenhouses. An environment, the latter, very suitable for vehicles without a driver, as it is well demarcated and with clearly defined lanes. So much so that greenhouse cultivation is one of the sectors in which autonomous machines were first developed; this primarily for the collection of fruits and vegetables.

Small or large?

The means mentioned above – but there are many others, such as Bakus of Vitibot, overhead tool holder for viticulture already found in Italy, for example – they have some common characteristics. The first: they are totally unfamiliar with the traditional concept of a tractor with which they have the wheels in common and not much else.

The second: they are almost always powered by electricity, sometimes with attempts to recharge in the field using a solar panel attached to the roof.

Alongside this trend, which we could rightly define as agricultural robots, however, there is another that follows a much more traditional path: It is no coincidence that it is populated by the historical names of agricultural mechanics, from John Deere to New Hollandpassing through Valtra, Kubota and many others. In general, we can say that while the (relatively) small robot tractors are almost always designed and built by startups or at least by companies outside the tradition of agricultural mechanics, the big names in the sector work to automate tractors similar to the ones we are used to to.

The historical manufacturers are therefore thinking of an autonomous tractor that is similar to today’s tractor. At most deprived of the driver’s position or the entire cabin, which in some prototypes is completely absent, and in some others it can be detached from the vehicle. These machines are also similar to the current ones in the fuel system, which remain endothermic: diesel in most cases or at most methane, though also for hydrogen.

The reasons for these differences are quite obvious: Traditional manufacturers have the assembly line, knowledge and technology to make tractors similar to the current ones, while startups cannot invest tens of thousands of millions of euros in complex and robotic production lines. They therefore focus on smaller machines that are simpler to build without affecting the technological content of the first level.

Furthermore, the dimensions are also important for transport, as these vehicles, without a driver and even controls, cannot circulate on the road and therefore have to be moved by trolley from one field (or vineyard) to another. On the contrary, the goal for the big producers is to arrive, we will see at what times, to a tractor that can both work in the field and move on the road in total autonomy.

Robotti by Agrointelli belongs to the startup category with machines very far from the traditional tractor concept

The prototypes in circulation

One of the latest self-driving vehicles on display is the John Deere’s Sesam 2, electrically powered. Thanks to a 1,000 kWh battery, it can work an entire day without having to recharge. In standard condition, the Sesam 2 has no cabin, which can, however, be fitted for road transport.

Moreover, the prototype is off Case Ih, presented in 2016 at the Farm Progress Show in Boone (Iowa) and then the silver medal at Sima in Paris. Based on a Magnum CVX, it works both thanks to the satellite signal and through a network of cameras and radars that detect any fixed or moving obstacles and stop the machine in case of danger.

A very similar path was followed by the Belarusian manufacturer Minsk Tractor Works with the Belarus A3523i: once again an autonomous tractor made by a traditional whose cab has been removed. It is powered by a Cummins engine that develops 350 horsepower and a stepless transmission with electric motors capable of delivering energy to any equipment.

On the other hand, New Holland’s NH Drive robot tractor is in every way reminiscent of a normal T8 Blue Power. The choice, which distinguishes the Italian-American brand from the Case IH cousins, was to create a vehicle that can work both independently and with a driver on board, in case of activities where it is not yet possible or legally allowed to drive. without operator. Interesting – though not new – the master-slave option, it is the option of the tractor driving alongside another vehicle equipped with a pilot. In this case, a single tractor driver would operate two machines, virtually doubling productivity without sacrificing a minimum of human control over the work.

The New Holland T8 and Case Ih Magnum are not the only attempts by the CNH group to reach driverless cars. The latter has invested significant sums in Monarch Tractor, a company founded in 2018 in Livermore, California.

Also thanks to these funds, Monarch has in just two years designed an electrically powered, self-propelled agricultural tractor. It is called the Mk-V and is a specialized vehicle, with power limited to 52 kW (70 horsepower) essentially to balance the battery performance and autonomy, which as you know is the real obstacle on the road to electrification of agricultural vehicles.

The Mk-V belongs to the family of tractors without a driver but with a cab, and like other vehicles of this type, it is equipped with the most advanced satellite and camera detection technologies to drive safely between the rows. Moreover, it is a machine that goes beyond the prototype: Monarch declares that it is ready to start mass production at any time.

Machines already working

Although the vast majority of driverless vehicles are concepts, we are beginning to see the first cases of cars ready for mass production. In addition to the just mentioned Monarch Mk-V, we recall that John Deere made headlines at Ces 2022 in Las Vegas by presenting an autonomous tractor that, unlike Sesame 2, can be mass-produced.

Based on a JD 8410, it is equipped with six pairs of stereoscopic cameras and a neural network that analyzes every pixel collected by the electronic eyes in a few milliseconds and makes immediate decisions about work or the need to stop the presence of aliens. or obstacles. on earth.

The primacy of the autonomous tractor already in operation belongs at least to Finland, as far as we know Valtra, which already at the end of the last decade started some self-propelled vehicles at Ivalo Airport, known for being the northernmost airport in the world. Here, where the slopes are covered with snow for at least 150 days a year, two unmanned Valtra come out of the hangar, refuel independently and drive on the slopes, removing snow and ice.

The same Scandinavian manufacturer also has the speed record in snow removal, achieved in 2018: 73.1 km per hour, once again without anyone driving the T 254, the originator of the farm.

The builders, from Cnh to John Deerein short, they seem to believe strongly in the autonomous tractor and invest in research on the subject: according to a study by Global Market Insights, this sector will be worth $ 95 billion in the world in five years, 40 more than in 2020. The question is at present because we still do not see the first driverless tractors working in the fields. Technological problems? Or of a different kind?

The technology to make a tractor work without human assistance exists and is already well tested. The automatic guides are now able to also make headland turns, not only by connecting the next virtual line, but by interrupting work, raising the implement and changing speed and speed. In practice, man can limit himself to monitoring. So?

John Deere’s autonomous tractor unveiled at Ces 2022 in Las Vegas would be ready for full-scale commercialization

Claas also invests in robotic tractors

In the race for driverless tractors, Claas he certainly does not stand by: Just a few weeks ago, he announced that he had increased his share of investments in the Dutch start-up AgXeed BV, which currently produces three models of autonomous operating machines: a 155 kW halfway and Ag bots , with three and four wheels, respectively 55 kW for vineyard and open field.

Already in the coming months, Claas said, the group’s dealers in Germany and Switzerland will begin to promote and sell AgXeed machines and take a further step towards automation of agricultural operations.

The legal issue

The real knot, which we already wrote a few weeks ago, is not technological, but legal and essentially relates to liability in the event of malfunctions and damage caused by a machine without human control.

As he points out Francesca Hennig-Possenti, Senior Counselor at John Deere Europe, there is a big difference between a tractor that follows a predetermined path and one that makes decisions on its own. The examples above – from the Valtra at the airport to the John Deere 8000 – are also based on the fact that the tractor, when faced with an obstacle or loss of signal, stops and waits for the driver.

On the contrary, in such a situation, a truly autonomous car must make a decision: to get around the obstacle, to stop and go back, to get over it. It is this option that makes the machine autonomous and not just equipped with automatic driving.

Hennig-Possenti explains: “However, due to the inherent complexity of artificial intelligence, it becomes difficult to understand, in the event of a mistake, who made the mistake. With automation of operations, everything is simpler: there is a machine and software that controls it. The fault can be mechanical or IT, there are no other ways. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is based on an algorithm that must be “trained” if we can say so. To do this, enter data; actually a lot of data. How many trees does a machine have to display to teach it to recognize a tree? Hundred? One thousand? A million? But let’s also assume that we have trained our system properly and yet an accident happens. Who’s fault is it? Who wrote the algorithm to? If information entered to make it work? From the manufacturer of the car? Who bought it and made it work? ».

We are in a situation, “continues Hennig-Possenti,” where a manufacturer, despite having purchased a correct algorithm and entering all the data necessary to instruct it correctly, can be held responsible for an adverse event. Not to mention that artificial intelligence by nature continues to learn during use, hour after hour, and this makes it even more complicated to determine the causes of a malfunction, which may also be due to the experience that the machine has accumulated. Let us think of two identical autonomous tractors, one working on the Tuscan hills and another in the rice fields of the Po Valley. After a few years of activity, they would have a completely different experience database ». And the builders, who face so much uncertainty, are reluctant to take risks.

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