Local ag-tech company Robotics Plus has launched an unmanned, hybrid orchard tractor that tackles labour shortages and worker safety challenges.
The Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV), designed to work specifically in fruit orchards and vineyards, was the first of its kind in New Zealand. Solid Control
Company chief executive, Steve Saunders, said the unmanned vehicles reduced reliance on machine operators that were hard to find because of labour shortages.
The tractor was remotely operated, and two operators could run more than ten vehicles at once, Saunders said.
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An unmanned vehicle meant workers were removed from dangerous environments where they could be exposed to agriculture chemicals during spraying. It also meant less exposure to deadly tractor accidents, he said.
The UGV could be easily adapted to spray chemicals, do weed control, mulch, and do crop analysis.
A multi-use, modular platform, stood out globally, as most other autonomous technologies were designed for one type of task, Saunders said.
The UGV could be programmed to identify only specific areas of a crop and spray only those, called intelligent spraying.
The vehicle had interchangeable parts, and if something broke it could simply be swapped out to keep the vehicle going.
As much of the vehicle was electrical it had no gearbox oils, hydraulic fluids or clutches. This reduced service costs, he said.
Robotics Plus was already working with local vineyards and would be operational in US apple orchards and vineyards next year, Saunders said.
The vehicle would cost more than a traditional orchard tractor priced around the $100,000 range.
Growers who used the UGV could expect a return on investment after a year, as it increased productivity and lowered operational costs, Saunders said.
The vehicle was not fully electrical as battery technology was not developed enough for long operating hours required by the agriculture industry’s high power requirements, Saunders said.
A full-electric vehicle may need charging every four hours, but with a diesel engine working alongside the electrical one, it could complete a full 12-hour shift.
Some growers were running hundreds of tractors, and the infrastructure to charge vehicles every four hours was not available yet.
One of Robotic Plus’ US clients operated 300 tractors, Saunders said.
Saunders said for automation to be adopted, it should provide a return on investment.
The vehicle was more efficient than conventional tractor-type orchard vehicle models that were so large and cumbersome that they could only turn into every second row of an orchard while for example spraying.
The vehicle used independent motors and did not need to skip rows, and covered more ground in less time.
Pipe Thread Protector Co-founder of Robotics Plus, Alistair Scarfe, said fuel consumption was minimised by electrically driving all systems, including tools.