Complete automation may well be the dominant focus of ag machinery design in the coming decades. We’ve already seen various levels of robotics introduced into conventional equipment, and a few limited-use autonomous machines have appeared. But no company has yet been willing to offer fully autonomous, market-ready tractors for general field duties — until now.
In November, the Dutch Power Company, based in the Netherlands, introduced its Greenbot fully autonomous tractor at the Agritechnica machinery expo in Hanover, Germany.
Dutch Power has supplied components for a variety of automated agricultural systems offered by other companies in the past, but the Greenbot is a fully in-house design.
“We’ve developed it in two years,” says Peter Mouthaan, company CEO. “One year of developing and building, and then testing one year. Now this is the production version.”
The Greenbot hits the market with a 120,000 to 150,000 Euro price tag (i.e. about C$170,000 to C$213,000).
The model on display at Agritechnica was a fully optioned version and was already sold to a Dutch farmer, scheduled for delivery right after the show ended, after which it would go straight to work on the farm.
For power, the Greenbot relies on a 100-horsepower, 3.4-litre Perkins diesel engine, with the drive flowing through a hydrostatic transmission to a four-wheel drive system. Four-wheel steering makes the little tractor very manoeuvrable. A category I, three-point on the front and category II hitch on the rear along with a PTO allow it to handle a variety of equipment. Mouthaan adds there is also some flexibility in how the tractor can be configured, allowing it to be tailored to specific needs.
The Greenbot doesn’t even have a standard operator’s station, although it can be driven by radio control, just like a kid’s RC toy.
General field duties get programmed into its onboard computer, allowing it to follow a field map or figure out its own way to complete a job.
“We have three ways to implement it,” says Mouthaan. “We have teach and play back, so you can do it with radio controls. You can put a (GPS) map inside that you make on your computer. You can also go to the field and let the machine go around one time and then say, OK, optimize itself.”
If the tractor encounters an unexpected obstacle, its built-in safety system immediately stops it. Then a text message is sent to its owner alerting them to the problem. The company’s description of the process claims safety was a “major consideration” during development. And the result, they say, is an automated tractor that operates even more safely than anything under the control of an experienced driver.
Although the tractor’s small 100-horse-power engine and 3,150 kilogram total weight makes it a relative lightweight, its autonomous function means it doesn’t need to stop for lunch breaks or shut down at night. Working 24 hours a day, even with a relatively small implement, the tractor could cover a lot of ground. It comes with a standard 85-litre fuel tank, but an additional tank can be installed to keep the little tractor busy for extended hours without stopping.
“It’s doing 80 per cent of your standardized work when you go to a field,” says Mouthaan, noting farmers who have tried it eventually warm up to the idea of a driverless tractor.
“At first they’re a little bit scared,” he admits. But then they see it working and they say, ‘Ah, it can do this for me. It can do that for me. It will make this easier.’”
Many visitors to the company’s display at Agritechnica apparently saw the Greenbot’s potential too.
“They’ve asked us to build a 200-horse-power model,” Mouthaan says. “But we’ll start with this one.”
For more information go online to precisionmakers.com.