The farmer of the future

Davide Giordano

Automation, robots and artificial intelligence: these are the frontiers of the agriculture 4.0

If in the industrial sector automation is now a master, in the agricultural sector it has only been on the market for a few years, at least at particularly important levels. Electronics in agricultural equipment is now common, and many manufacturers have just moved on to the next levels. Highly automated, robotic devices equipped with artificial intelligence and connected to the IoT (internet of things) network

Born in the stable?

Detail of the AFS Lely
automatic feed mixer wagon system

Most likely one of the first areas that benefited from the introduction of robots and automation was zootechnics. It is in fact a sector with a high demand for manpower, and therefore the demand for automation from manufacturers has always been high; moreover, the operations to be performed are routine and carried out in fixed and pre-established points, which greatly facilitates robotization.

The two operations that are now fully automated are milking and feeding. While milking has often been mentioned, automatic feeding systems (AFS) are a little more unknown to the general public. AFS systems, basically, are a complex of robotized equipment that ensures the correct distribution of feed within the barn, bringing the right ration to each cow. Feeding is in fact one of the daily activities that engages the farmer for the longest time. The use of the TMR technique has certainly reduced the distribution times in the barn, as a single step allows to dispense all the food, but the preparation times are still long. AFS techniques represent a big step forward in the management of a farm: the automation of the herd feeding is an important point to reduce manpower. An AFS device consists of 3 main sectors: the raw material storage area, the mixer and the distribution system. It is also possible to automate only some of these areas, also based on the economic availability at the time of the investment. The investment in these plants is in fact quite expensive, especially if redevelopment of the barn or the internal company layout is necessary. The use of an automatic feeding system should in fact be foreseen directly from the design phase of the stable. In fact, these technologies provide a feed kitchen, that is a well-defined area, where the raw materials that will be taken and used in the preparation of the ration are stored.

Unfortunately, in Italian stables it is quite difficult to find a suitable place for this installation, unless a new building is constructed for this purpose. In Northern Europe stables, where for climatic reasons even food is often stored in the only building of the stable, the installation is more simplified. Raw materials can be stored in different ways, depending on the type of AFS system. Some models in fact have silos or hoppers, while others settle for heaps, even if well separated, from where they take them through clamshell buckets. It is also necessary to provide routes between the feed kitchen and the stable, where the distributor will pass. Automating the feeding phase brings several advantages for the farmer.

An example of a high-tech plough, the Kverneland 2500 i-Ploug

The first, and most evident, is certainly the saving of time and labor. The breeder in fact, only has to ensure that the raw materials are always present in the feed kitchen; however, this task is not carried out on a daily basis, but varies according to the availability of space and the type of product. If for some concentrates there are no problems even in storing large quantities in silos, it is important for silage to avoid large accumulations, which would lead to harmful fermentation. An accumulation of sufficient product for 2-3 days of need is considered optimal. In a wide-ranging perspective, and especially when these automatic systems are combined with milking robots, the number of daily distributions is increased. In this way, the cows are stimulated to a greater movement, the ruminal conditions (especially the pH) are more easily maintained and milk production is also increased.

However, it is important to combine this with the milking robot to allow maximum freedom for the cows. The ration deposited is always fresh, and in addition, some distribution systems check the presence of food in the lane, distributing it only where necessary. Moreover, in farms where the feed mixer wagon is towed, the company demand for tractors is reduced, as the tractor is no longer needed for towing.

A first level on tractors

The Fendt Xaver is a small electrically powered robot, designed to work in a group together with many other specimens

In the field of the agricultural machine par excellence, the tractor, one of the first attempts at automation was certainly the introduction of geolocation with GPS technology. The first devices were the so-called parallel guides, i.e. simple monitors that showed the tractor driver the direction to keep (with variable precision, but tending to be around +/- 15-20 cm for the most common systems), but without real automation. Subsequently, the introduction of actuators, both external on the steering wheel and internal to the power steering circuit, led to a complete automation of the driving phase, which on some models also includes the management of the headland maneuver. In fact, on modern tractors, all functions are managed electronically (usually through ISO-BUS circuits), and this allows the parallel guidance to also manage the equipment. Not only that, the most recent versions of the ISO-BUS protocols also allow reverse operation, i.e. the implement controlling the tractor.

A striking example: the baler that automatically stops the tractor, opens the hood, unloads the formed round bale and restarts the machine. All without the operator lifting a finger!

Another example? The plow. Some manufacturers, first and foremost Kverneland    have also brought electronics and automation to ploughs. An example is the series of compatible ISOBUS mounted reversible ploughs called 2500 i-Ploug. In particular, the electronic controls actually concern all the main settings of the equipment: the working width of the first body can be set according to the width of the tractor tyre and, again electronically, it is possible to adjust the angle of attachment of the plough (i.e. vary the working width), but also the depth. In addition, it is a point of honour for a good tractor driver to always produce perfectly straight furrows. Now it is easier, thanks to FurrowControl RTK (i.e. with high precision GPS).

And with the 2500 i-Plough series even curves can be adjusted. Not only: always via ISOBus, you can automatically configure the plough from the working position to the transport position and vice versa. The frame is completed by a three-point hitch with upper connection hinged with hydraulic control. This allows you to quickly configure, via ISOBUS, the plough from the working position (three-point linkage carried) to the transport position (semi-trailed linkage on the two lower parallels). The working width is variable, thanks to the now well-known Variomat® from 30 to 60 cm continuously, always with ISOBUS control.

The two driverless autonomous concepts of the CNH Group; note the complete absence of the cabin on the Case version

Driver away

Autonomous, driverless, robots… there are many definitions that manufacturers use. But the substance is unique: tractors without driver on board, capable of independently performing all traditional processes, but not only. In fact, the absence of the driver on board allows to operate even in extremely dangerous situations, such as steep slopes. An example are the radio-controlled vehicles that are now particularly widespread. These are radio-controlled machines, with engines that can reach up to 90-100 HP of power. They are almost always designed for use with particularly robust mulchers, for removing brambles and shrubs from slopes, but they can actually be connected with any agricultural implement, as they are usually equipped with a traditional three-point attachment. Remaining on a small scale, Fendt      presented the XAVER as part of the FutureFarm project. These are small robotic machines, with relatively simple hardware and software structures and behaving like a swarm, controlled by a cloud system. A logistics unit ensures transport in the field and refueling, while these small robots move around the field. At the moment the machine is designed for sowing corn, but you might as well think about soil tillage systems or other devices. The presence of a large number of machines allows great reliability, because even if one machine stops for maintenance, the others continue to operate. They can operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, for greater efficiency and timeliness. The small dimensions (about 50 kg of mass) allow a considerable reduction of soil trampling, respecting the environment also thanks to the electric drive with small size batteries (the power required is in fact about 400 W).

Similar in concept, but born for open field agriculture, the CNH group  presented the Autonomous Concept Vehicle back in 2016. Based on the architecture of a Magnum tractor (for the Case range) or T8 (for the New Holland range), it is not a normal radio-controlled machine but a real autonomous vehicle, able to move even on tracks or roads (at the moment for legislative reasons obviously not open to vehicular traffic).
The positioning of the vehicle is based on high precision GPS (RTK), traditional camera systems, LIDAR laser remote sensing devices and a multitude of different sensors.
While the blue version still has the traditional tractor concept, still having the cab, certainly the brother in red is particularly attractive, thanks to the complete removal of the cab and a particularly futuristic design. ν

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