The self-driving tractor that takes over tasks from the farmer
A tractor that drives across a field without a driver and starts working there on its own may sound like future music but will be reality within a few years' time. We developed the first self-driving tractor in our country that can take over all kinds of tasks from the farmer. During the fruit harvest, for instance, the tractor places empty crates next to the field. As soon as they are filled with fruit, it will pick them up again and place them in a truck. Such technological innovations will help farmers to work more efficiently and overcome labour shortages in the sector. We are also working on other custom-equipped vehicles, such as smart forklift trucks that are able to independently carry out tasks in all kinds of production environments.
The agricultural sector has the ambition to produce in a more sustainable way, but is facing enormous challenges in this context, such as the extreme weather conditions associated with climate change and the need to feed a growing population. An additional problem is labour shortage, which undermines the sector’s long-term viability.
"Innovation and automation can provide an answer to this", says Chris Ganseman, Technical Project Manager at Flanders Make. "Autonomous agricultural vehicles increase production as they can work day and night. They can also tackle labour shortages and take over annoying, monotonous tasks from the farmer. Still, farmers will never be completely replaced, you will always need someone to control and maintain those machines."
Industry, such as the logistics sector, can also benefit from autonomous vehicles. We are working, for instance, on smart fork-lift trucks that can effectively find their way in warehouses. These machines understand the context and recognise the different objects with which they interact. Thanks to algorithms, these fork-lift trucks are able to deal with obstacles and changing conditions and can rapidly and autonomously calculate and follow another route. Through a link with logistic software, human errors during picking are virtually excluded.
Autonomous driving is often associated with passenger transport, but is actually easier to apply in agriculture and industry. Speeds are lower, the environment more predictable and there is less interaction with other people and vehicles. We developed a self-driving tractor in which the high-tech gadgets of self-driving cars have been combined with high precision in the execution of its tasks.
Highly accurate GPS infrastructure, sensors, cameras and scanners ensure that the autonomous tractor can operate day and night in often dusty conditions. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, the tractor can also safely anticipate people crossing its path.
However, the core task of an autonomous tractor is not driving, but working a field or moving goods. These actions are often unique to a specific crop, which means that an agribot must be able to recognise different objects and to carefully manipulate the goods to be transported. In this way, the autonomous tractor can take on all kinds of repetitive tasks, such as collecting hay bales from different places on the field and bringing them together for transport, automatic ploughing, mowing or spraying. This will allow farmers to focus on more complex tasks that are less easy to automate.
"Autonomous vehicles can assist us, allowing us to free up more time for tasks where our knowledge and experience remains useful", says Mark Nickmans of fruit company Nickmans from Halen. "The entire agricultural sector needs to be better organised. In the future, autonomously working vehicles will no doubt be a part of this."
So, more and more vehicles will in future not only be able to drive but also to work autonomously. To this end, Flanders Make is currently developing the necessary technology to optimise as soon as possible various applications that are useful for multiple sectors. "We not only want to make sure that tractors can do their job autonomously, we also aim at their multifunctional deployability", adds Chris Ganseman. "It is important that not too much time goes lost in preparing the tractor for a new task, the machines must be flexible to be effective. We are developing the necessary strategies to make this possible in a safe way."
In both agriculture and industry, we are evolving towards a situation where the operator stands at the side and controls autonomous vehicles using an interface on his PC or tablet. In addition, several machines will work together as well. For example, a drone and an autonomously driving tractor can be used together to achieve optimum spraying results. Based on hyperspectral images generated by the drone, the autonomous tractor can spray a field automatically, very accurately and using minimum quantities.
Wouter Hanoulle - Communication Officer
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