Flanders Make demonstrates the driverless farming tractor
A farming tractor performing – all alone – tasks like collecting boxes with harvested fruit or hay bales, plowing a field, and sowing. Faster than we’ll see fully autonomous cars on the roads, it’s the future of farming starting today, as shown by Flanders Make with its autonomous tractor.
The standard tractor, retrofitted with the autonomous technology, was demonstrated at fruit grower Mark Nickmans’site in Halen picking up fruit box pallets in the orchard to collect them without a driver intervening. For Mark Nickmans, it would be a dream to be freed of hours of driving the tractor himself and be able to manage his company partially from his computer.
Flanders Make, the Flemish research institute of the manufacturing industry, is a joint initiative of universities, the regional government, and a cluster of companies active in Flanders. It has some 650 researchers working together on new technologies for vehicles and machines and manufacturing techniques.
It is working on autonomous driving technology for buses and shuttles for some years already. Like a project sponsored by the EU for an uncrewed shuttle to transport visitors. at the recreation and holiday park Terhills at the former coal mine site of Eisden (Maasmechelen). Being no public ground as such, there is no customary traffic regulation, so it’s an ideal site for a test track.
Assisted by drones
The same applies to most farming grounds, where an autonomous tractor is less likely to have to deal with complex traffic situations. The tractor equipped by the Flanders Make researchers use the ‘open controller platform’ developed by the institute, gathering information of several sensors like cameras, LIDAR, and radar and using ultra-precision GPS to find its way.
It should detect and avoid animals and humans that cross its path and recognize a full fruit box in the orchard as demonstrated, or hay bales on a mowed field. Hence the importance of its electronic eyes. But it could be assisted with a bird’s view by a drone in the air too, Chris Ganseman, Technical Project Manager at Flanders Make, explains.
Drones could be deployed to inspect how the crop is growing on the field and detect spots where growth is trailing behind, and action by automatic machines could be required. These could be working together. Today, an operator in the demo tractor is still available in case intervention is needed. They will do that completely autonomous in the future.
Driverless tractors don’t sleep
‘Automatic’ dead straight plowing or in patterns, using GPS, is already quite commonly available today. But the vision is to have several autonomous farming machines working seemlessly toghter while the farmer keeps an eye on them from behind the computer screen.
For fruit grower Mark Nickelmans it’s a dream of no longer having to spend hours on the tractor himself or paying somebody to do that for him. Finding qualified personnel becomes extremely difficult today. And even if you’re lucky to find them, Nickelmans says, when they have finished their working day, you’re on your own again as a farmer. And an autonomous tractor doesn’t need to sleep.
“Autonomous machines can assist us,” says Nickelmans, “so we can free up more time for tasks where knowledge and experience are needed. The whole agricultural sector has to be organized in a better way. Autonomous working machines are part of that future without a doubt.”