Several months ago Country Guide reported on the field robot project called MARS, which is an acronym for Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms. It began as a joint research project between the European Commission and AGCO’s Fendt brand.
At the Agritechnica machinery show in Hanover, Germany, in November, AGCO revealed the project has moved beyond the development stage. Now the company is almost ready to let the machines loose on a limited release ahead of a full-scale market introduction.
And along with entering a new phase of development comes a new name for the 60-kilogram robots: Xaver.
“We started with a research project funded by the European Commission in May of 2015,” explained Thiemo Buchner, project lead at Fendt Robotics. “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 pre-product development. We’re now in the product development phase, because we’re aiming at the commercialization of the Xaver.”
The new name demonstrates that the project is on track, Buchner continued. “We’ve left the research phase and gone into real product development now. MARS was the research project. Xaver is the product. Xaver is the first name of our founder, Xaver Fendt. And it’s also like Alexa from Amazon. You can now say, ‘Okay, Xaver, please seed the field.’”
The little robots are designed to work in groups. The “swarms” are completely controlled by a special program that sends instructions to the machines and gets data back from them through the Cloud, such as the exact GPS position of each planted seed.
“What’s important to understand is that the whole system is working autonomously,” said Buchner. “The farmer just puts the trailer, which is the logistic unit, near the field, presses a button, and after that our algorithm and the Cloud take over. It does plot planning for all the robots. It receives the position of each robot and it also stores each seed position in its database. So for later applications you know where the plant will grow.”
Each robot is capable of planting between 0.1 and 0.15 hectares (about 0.25 of an acre) per hour, so a swarm of 10 will cover about one to 1.5 hectares (2.5 acres) in the same time.
Buchner believes in the conditions typical of Western Europe 15 robots could replace a conventional eight-row planter.
“And if you think of the 24/7 capability of the system, even less (robots would be needed), because they all work all night long,” he added.
There is redundancy built into the Xaver system to account for any unexpected failure of a single unit. The control program will automatically issue new instructions to the remaining units to cover for any one that goes down, and operators can monitor the progress of the machines from a portable smart device.
“You can look on your app and see how far the seeding process is, where the robots are driving,” said Buchner. “You can stop or let the robot return to the logistic system if you want to. But the important thing is you don’t have a necessity to input with the system during operation. So no operator needed.”
Each unit can travel up to 60 km/h, and the battery powering them will last for 2.5 to three hours. When the power level gets too low, each unit will automatically return to the charging station, which is in the logistics trailer. There it not only gets a recharge, the seed hopper is also automatically refilled. Each Xaver unit can hold up to 25,000 seeds. That’s enough to plant about 0.25 of a hectare (0.6 of an acre).
Starting in 2019, the brand will offer Xaver on a limited market introduction basis.
“We will have a pilot series in 2019, maybe a pay-for–use model, where we go out with the robots and do some seeding in clients’ fields,” said Buchner.
Right now the Xaver system is only designed to seed corn, but after it becomes widely available as a regular product from Fendt (and possibly dealers of other AGCO brands), Buchner thinks engineers will look at expanding what the little robots can do.
“We have this in the back of our minds, of course,” he said. “It’s highly modular. You could maybe put other modules inside. Instead of seeding, you could maybe think of scouting applications, for instance, or weed control.”