Two agricultural engineering graduates from Warwickshire are preparing to propel the UK into a robotic agricultural revolution, by introducing a new kind of robotic tractor from Denmark. Simon Henley finds out more.
Tucked away on the outskirts of Alcester in Warwickshire is a new company established by two farmer’s sons who studied agricultural engineering together at Harper Adams University. The company is called Autonomous Agri Solutions and the two men who founded the business are Jack Wyatt and Tom Beach.
Messrs Wyatt and Beach started their business venture following a trip to Agritechnica in Germany back in 2019. The goal of their trip to Hanover was to take a close look at the use of robotics in agriculture and to see just how big of a role robotic technology was playing in the farming industry.
Mr Beach explains: “We spent two days walking around the show just talking to different companies. Most of the robotics companies we spoke to were either demonstrating prototype machines or working on research projects. “On the afternoon of our last day at the show we came across a company from Denmark called Agrointelli, which had developed a robotic agricultural tool carrier called the Robotti. Both Jack and I were very impressed.
“At this point we were strictly learning, but after spending some time talking with Agrointelli we realised this was a company which was not only investing into the future of robotics in agriculture, but also had a product they were prepared to stand behind.”
The Robotti is what Agrointelli describes as a versatile autonomous robot, designed for solving multiple tasks in the field throughout the complete farming season. In layman’s terms, it could otherwise be described as an autonomous gantry tractor (see panel).
Capable of a wide range of tilling, weeding, seeding, fertilising and shallow cultivation tasks, the Robotti is 3m wide and controlled by a computer, able to navigate itself using RTK technology. Human input is relegated to preparing and setting-up the machine.
Tom Beach has spent four-years working for several large vegetable producers, where he has gained valuable experience working with automated handling systems. As the son of a vegetable grower himself, Mr Beach has also applied his passion for robotics to the family business which specializes in growing purple sprouting.
Jack Wyatt’s family farm near Warwick, with Mr Wyatt sharing the same passion for robotics as his business partner. One of the things which particularly impressed him about the Robotti design was its simplicity and practicality.
“The Robotti is built using existing components and technology,” explains Mr Wyatt. “You have a hydrostatic transmission, pto and a conventional three point linkage, which is controlled by a very clever ECU that enables it to use existing cyber-technology, but in a different more efficient manner.
“Using implements already on the farm, the three-point linkage is centrally located so the weight of the implement is evenly distributed between all four wheels. This eliminates the need for additional ballast weight, to offset the weight of the implement.
“Another major benefit of the gantry design is that the implement does not swing out during headland turns. Furthermore, because the implement is supported between the wheels, it can be controlled with a far greater degree of accuracy and precision.”
Mr Beach adds: “One of the recommendations when using a Robotti is to re-map all the field boundaries using the robot. The Robotti will use existing GPS or RTK systems, but because it works so precisely you actually risk incurring minor inaccuracies.”
Setting up the autonomous machine to perform a task is a very similar process to setting up the headland management system on any modern tractor. This means programming implement width, working depth, implement lift height, pto on and off, working speed, headland turn speed and so on. Just like a tractor, the set-up data is stored so it can be re-used in the future.
The difference is, when you program the Robotti, you do it on a tablet or on the office PC. The robot also needs to know where the headland is, where to start and where to finish. Once this data has been uploaded, it can automatically optimize the most efficient route in the field to complete the task with the implement it is using.
Out of the field, the machine is controlled by a hand-held remote control unit. It is transported on the road using a compact low-loader trailer. With a transport weight of 1.2t, it means it is light on its feet and can be towed behind a pick-up.
Once programmed and in the field, starting it is a simple as pressing a go button. The Robotti features an integrated touch screen for any fine-tuning, but once it is up and running it can be left to its own devices. If something goes wrong and it stops, it sends a text to its host.
Another important feature of the machine is the incorporation of camera platforms. Suitable for multiple live surveillance cameras with different views, a farmer or manager can watch it in action using a PC or tablet.
As for safety and legality, the rules pertaining to robotics in agriculture are still being written. The issue belying the operation of any robotic or autonomous vehicle is liability or, more specifically, who is to blame if something goes wrong. Fortunately, this is currently being clarified.
In terms of its operational safety features, the Robotti uses Lidar technology to prevent it from colliding with anything. Lidar uses laser light to measure the distance between the machine and an object in front of it, by measuring the time the laser light reflection takes to return to a sensor.
The laser scans continually and if something or someone is detected in front of the machine, it stops immediately and notifies its host by text. If the object moves, it will continue working. A light bar (which changes colour) mounted on top of the machine provides as visual interpretation of the machine’s operational status.
Fitted around the outside of the machine is safety shut-off bar. If anything makes contact with the side or the rear of the machine it stops. As a further measure of safety, Robotti machines sold in the UK will come with an action support plan to help customers with any questions or concerns. The action plan package will also include signage to identify that an autonomous vehicle is in operation.
“The development work undertaken by Agrointelli takes the use of robotic tractors to a new level,” concludes Mr Beach. “For the first time, the technology is now in place to allow farmers and growers to safely and effectively utilise one or multiple autonomous vehicles in the field. This is the beginning of the robotic revolution.”
The concept of the gantry tractor design has been around for some time. Back in the 1980s, the Dowler Gantry system, developed by Cotswold farmer David Dowler, pioneered the principle of using a self-propelled gantry as a tool carrier and an irrigation/crop sprayer platform in controlled-traffic applications.
It was 12 metres wide, weighed in excess of 10 tonnes and was driven by an operator in a cab positioned on one end of the machine. Extensive development work resulted in a research program at the Silsoe Research Institute, which sadly capitulated following Mr Dowler’s untimely death. The Robotti effectively takes a 21st century approach to the gantry design.