A broad range of cropping which includes a large number of row-grown vegetables and roots, plus both organic and conventional production systems, creates a significant need for repetitive inter-row weeding operations and a high demand for labour at Suffolk-based Nacton Farms.
It is with this in mind that the business has purchased one of the UK’s first autonomous tractors.
With 1,940 hectares producing leeks, brassicas, onions, red beet and potatoes, plus fodder beet, sugar beet and cereals, farms director Andrew Williams points out that in both the conventional and organic production systems the business is increasingly limited in how it can control weeds.
“That’s both from a labour point of view – with good staff becoming harder to find and needing to be stimulated and challenged in their work – and from the conventional aspect because of pressures on herbicide chemistry.
For this reason, we have been looking for a number of years for new methods of weed control and for other ways in which we can automate repetitive tasks and focus our labour on more stimulating, challenging and rewarding jobs.”
Technology The farm is a member of farmer owned inputs purchasing and crop marketing business Fram Farmers and it is through this link that its purchase of what is thought to be the country’s first autonomous tractor has come about.
Gordon Cummings, Fram Farmers’ machinery buyer, says: “As a farm inputs purchasing company which, among other things, buys machinery for its members, we have a strong interest in new technology.
“For a while now I had been talking to various robot development companies and watching their work with interest.
But while many of their machines are made for individual tasks, the Agrointelli Robotti particularly stood out for me, as it is essentially a multi-use tractor, with four wheels, an engine and a three-point linkage plus pto, and accepts standard implements.
“Talking with some of our group members, especially those involved in growing row crops and vegetables, they could see the advantages, particularly for repetitive tasks such as inter-row weeding, allowing them to put labour to better use. I developed dialogue with Agrointelli, a Danish company, over the past year and Mr Williams, farm director for one of our members, Home Farm, Nacton, near Ipswich, expressed a particularly keen interest in what its machine, the Robotti 150D, could achieve for his farm’s business.”
Having been put in touch by Mr Cummings with the team at Agrointelli, Mr Williams gained a clearer idea of the Robotti 150D’s capabilities.
“Mechanical and manual weeding are very repetitive tasks and in the latter case sourcing seasonal labour is becoming increasingly difficult. With automation of various elements of machinery operation becoming more commonplace, I’m confident in the technology generally, and after talking with the Agrointelli team I was assured of the capability and reliability that was promised.
“After costing out a proposal indicating the investment – approxi mately £150,000 – versus the potential labour savings and other gains such as not tying up a conventional tractor, I presented this to our management. After consultation with other parties such as our insurers, who were very helpful when given proof of the safety features of the machine, by January this year that proposal was approved.”
Support and back-up While Fram Farmers facilitated the sale of the first machine, it is not the importer.
That role falls to West Midlands-based Autonomous Agri Solutions, a company formed recently by two Harper Adams graduates, who provide support and back-up.
The machine is autonomously controlled with 2.5cm repeatable accuracy by RTK GPS via an onboard computer terminal, to which can be loaded a pre-programmed planned field route map. Power comes courtesy of two conventional Kubota 75hp diesel engines.
While the unit on the left side provides the drive to the hydrostatic wheel motors and powers the hydraulics, the righthand engine drives the pto.
With each engine having a 110-litre fuel tank, capacity is claimed to be sufficient for about 24 hours of continuous operation.
“That is one of the most significant attractions for us,” says Mr Williams.
“It can be in operation day and night without a need for change of driver, or the issue of driver fatigue, so it gives us a broader window of opportunity during potentially short windows of weather suited to weeding. By moving surface soil in the early stage of weed growth with guaranteed precision, we catch weeds early before they can affect the crop, making multiple, frequent passes where necessary.”
In operation on the farm since mid-April, the Robotti 150D’s work to date has centred around inter-row weeding of different vegetable crops using a Schmotzer tine weeder.
According to Agrointelli, this is one of 50 robots which will be working in Europe by the end of the year.
Frederik Rom, Agrointelli sales manager, says: “As an example of the planning needed for a field task, it took approximately 10 minutes to map a 1.6ha field at Home Farm and a further 10 minutes to log the weeding plan into the system.
“Field obstacles, such as telegraph poles or trees, are logged at the programming stage. Any other obstacles outside of this, including any approaching person, are detected by a laser scanner, while impact sensor bars also instantly stop the machine’s motion.”
Portal The Agrointelli website features an online Robotti portal, through which an owner is provided with real-time updates of the machine’s progress.
“While we were, naturally, quite cautious at the beginning of our time with the machine, I am now very confident to leave it working in the field,” says Mr Williams.
“It sends SMS text alerts of any issue with operation and via the portal I can link to the view from its front and rear cameras. That’s not only useful from a safety and progress point of view, but it also allows me to assess crop growth progress. “Through the website portal I can check data such as fuel levels, estimated work time based on the remaining fuel and the hours of work completed. I can also check and receive an alert when the machine has finished a task and needs to be moved via trailer to the next field.”
While the business’ soils are mostly light, Agrointelli suggests its development trials in Denmark show the Robotti also works well on heavier ground.
For Mr Williams, the decision to make a significant investment in technology previously unproven on a commercial scale in the UK has, to date, been vindicated, he believes.
“I’m very pleased with its performance so far. This season, while we become used to the system of working with it, the Robotti 150D is likely to be used solely for weeding. However, we have plans to extend its set of tasks to include topping and drilling in the future and perhaps transplanting. And over the longer term, should developments make it possible, I am especially interested in spraying applications for our conventional crops.”