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Farming with Robots

Simon Blackmore
Robotics & Automation Institute Harper Adams University

February 13, 2018 at  1:30 PM
McConnell Engineering Room 437

Currently we are seeing new technologies being introduced into agricultural machines. Most new large tractors have autosteer systems that allow much more accurate positioning and driving to avoid overlap and skip of the field treatments. This saves on average 10-15% of time, fuel, treatment costs and wages. Many tractors now not only use a CAN bus for internal system management but also an ISOBUS to communicate with the attached implements. Instead of the tractor controlling the implement, it is now the implement controlling the tractor as it is the implement that is doing the task and not the tractor. For example, when a baler needs to drop a bale, it can command the tractor to stop and when the bale has been dropped it tells the tractor to continue. Telemetry is another innovation that allows new levels of management. New combine harvesters are X-by-wire so a lot of data about the machine is digitally available. Some manufacturers can now transmit this information back to the factory for analysis. If the machine starts to operate outside normal tolerances, say, a belt starts to slip then the driver can be alerted via mobile phone before a problem becomes a disaster.

An alternative way would be to start with a new paradigm that deals with many of these issues. We recognise that farmers today have many conflicting pressures. New legislation, environmental protection, variability of world prices, single payment scheme to name but a few. All of the drivers push towards more efficient production and the reduction of input costs. Combine this with the opportunity from new technologies leads to designing a new mechanisation system based on plant needs that addresses all the drivers which in turn leads to agricultural robotics.

Can we develop a new system of machines that can assess variability in real time and only introduce the minimum amount of energy to support crop development? The answer is clearly yes. We have not yet fully answered all the questions or developed all the technologies needed but many of them have now been prototyped and we can start to visualise a complete new mechanisation system.