Automation and autonomy are hot topics when it comes to sustainable farming technology, and some equipment manufacturers are at the forefront of developments.
The research and advanced engineering department of agricultural engineering manufacturer AGCO/Fendt, for example, has been working on swarm technology and innovative robotics.
According to an article by the manufacturer, manual work that today requires large numbers of labourers toiling on the land will certainly be automated in the future.
“This will eliminate the burden of monotonous work and pave the way for more sustainably produced foods,” AGCO states.
The smallest of seeders
The latest generation of the Fendt Xaver is equipped with a seed unit developed by Precision Planting, an AGCO subsidiary.
“Through Precision Planting, we’ve been able to draw on the AGCO Group’s agronomy expertise and proven technology to produce our seed-sowing robots,” says Dr Benno Pichlmaier, AGCO’s director of global technology and innovation.
“We adapted the modules of the first Xaver generation and combined them with the new seed unit. Proven concepts have been combined with the innovative robotics design, which has led to a new, integrated system.”
The vSet® solution spaces the seed rapidly and with utmost precision. An electrically driven control system deposits individual grains with centimetre-accuracy at a predefined distance in the row. The grains are dropped in the furrow by a flexible firmer.
The new Xaver has three wheels, with the last one driving the robot and acting as a gauge wheel. As it passes over, it compacts the soil gently to the side and above the seed, closing the soil around the grain to ensure moisture supply and initiate germination.
The latest generation of the field robot is equipped with the VarioGuide lane guidance system, which controls the robot with absolute precision. Fendt Xaver is also integrated into the FendtONE platform and can be managed together with the rest of the machine fleet.
This allows for a seamless exchange of field data, including waylines, between tractor and robot as well as between robot and database, making light work of creating job orders.
“The cornerstones of our swarm system are scalability in terms of investment costs and impact, minimising failure risks from robot redundancy, and integrating autonomy and precision farming,” says Pichlmaier.
“After sowing, the Xaver ‘maps’ all the useful crops in the field, and we can use this for all our follow-up work, such as plant protection, and mechanical weed control and fertilisation, regardless of whether this is done by robots or tractors.”
He adds that the prerequisite for swarm technology is reliable network coverage for communication. The seed-sowing robots use the Fendt Xaver Cloud to receive commands and return their status reports.
The system is web-based and managed independently in the Xaver app. This means that the farmer or contractor can access the entire fleet or individual robots in the field on a tablet or from the office PC. The app itself can also be opened from the FendtONE portal.
There is no additional user login. The design and user interface of the Xaver app meet FendtONE standards, making it intuitive even for first-time users.
Compact, yet powerful
The most obvious design change with the latest Fendt Xaver is the switch from four relatively small wheels to three larger ones. These offer increased ground contact, greater ground clearance, and more precise depth guidance.
The new machine is also highly manoeuvrable, an advantage in a headland. With a length of just 2m, it needs minimal space to turn, and the rear steering design and all-wheel drive enables it to operate energy-efficiently even on soft soil.
The heavier front wheels provide greater coulter pressure for sowing in loamy soils.
Fully ballasted, the robot reaches a maximum total weight of 250kg, and it is a mere 150kg unladen. The seed tank capacity has been extended to 20ℓ, enough for about 0,5ha at 90 000 seeds/ha.
The capacity of the lithium- ion battery has been increased to 2,6kWh and the machine can operate for about 1,5 hours before needing to return to the base station for charging. A swarm of six robot units achieves an area coverage of around 3ha/hour, and the system enables round-the-clock, autonomous use.
One of the main aims of developing field robots is to provide an intelligent, low-impact, yet powerful alternative to the trend of ever-heavier large machines.
Heavy machinery causes damage, especially on softer or wetter ground, which results in yield loss and shortens field work days. Robots also make follow-up work, such as hoeing, considerably easier and enables farmers to monitor and maintain quality.
Smart solutions for sustainability
“The energy costs and, with that, the carbon dioxide footprint, are significantly lower with a Xaver than with conventional technology. This is due both to the negligible pressure on the surface and the lack of energy consumption of equipment such as air-conditioners and power steering. The efficient and simple direct electric drive also helps in this respect,” says Pichlmaier.
Ecological elements also play a role. Seed-sowing robots have no air pollutants or noise emissions, nor can they leak oil. Ground pressure is up to 80% lower than with conventional machine systems.
Significantly lower wage and energy costs further boost the economic sustainability of the Xaver swarm system.