A concentrated five-year stretch of research and development by Tauranga-based agri-tech firm Robotics Plus is poised to pay off in coming months as the company goes commercial with its unmanned ground vehicle design.
Robotics Plus CEO Steve Saunders has just returned from California, where he oversaw the launch and demonstration of the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) at FIRA USA, an event showcasing autonomous agricultural equipment and robotics for the United States market.
The company has already built a strong presence in the States, thanks to its automated apple-sorting and -packing equipment installed in the country’s apple-growing capital, Washington, among other states.
Saunders says the UGV is designed as a modular machine capable of having multiple tools interchanged depending upon the orchard application, whether that be spraying, pruning, harvesting or mowing. It can also be adapted to different crop types.
Its look is a significant departure from that of an earlier development by Robotics Plus for an autonomous kiwifruit orchard machine, focusing strongly on the ability to easily interchange tools and components.
“We have also done a lot to simplify servicing. The central ‘brain’ is modulised for easy swap-out. This is in response to the first thing growers ask us, about how to service it should it break down in the middle of the night.”
He says the machine’s service demands are also reduced thanks to its direct electric drive system, with no gearbox or hydraulics and all electrics sealed.
The UGV is driven via a diesel-electric hybrid system that delivers power direct to electric-drive motors, with the diesel engine providing additional power alongside regenerative braking and high-capacity battery storage.
“A great insight from the FIRA event was when the question was raised about whether farmers were ready for electrification. The answer was they are not,” Saunders says.
One of Robotics Plus’s biggest clients has almost 300 tractors in its stable, and the practicalities of charging are simply impossible to accommodate.
“A fully electric tractor, having to stop every four hours to recharge, is simply not realistic. Our hybrid diesel system means the UGV can run comfortably over 12-hour shifts.”
Having the diesel engine also extends the UGV’s operability, allowing the user to attach high energy demand tools like mowers, which would otherwise drain an all-electric machine in double time.
Robotics Plus worked closely with Croplands spray tech company to develop suitable kit that is a variation on the company’s Quantum vineyard sprayers, capable of being varied in speed and application rate depending upon spray and crop.
“We have taken the technology from hydraulic power source to fully electric and digitally controlled.”
The ability to finely control the application will provide a good starting point for the NZ apple industry’s goal to ultimately become spray-free by 2050, by targeting application.
The machines can comfortably operate on slopes of up to 20 degrees, and are capable of turning on a 10-degree slope.
Saunders says their tight turning radius and ability to spin between rows, rather than skip a row as a tractor might, could significantly increase productivity on today’s machines.
At scale it is possible for two operators to run 10 machines, one monitoring the fleet and another running a vehicle to replenish spray water.
The UGV’s footprint means it is not much longer than the Quantum sprayer unit and weighs half as much as its US competition.
While not disclosing its price, Saunders says the unit will cost more than a conventional tractor and sprayer unit, but the productivity gains and lower operational costs mean it is capable of delivering a payback to its US customers within a year of use.
“It is a compelling return.”
US growers, like their NZ counterparts, are grappling with major labour shortages and rising employment costs, pushing the economics of UGVs further into the black every season.
For operators keen to see the machine in action in NZ, Robotics Plus is planning to have it operating in Hawke’s Bay before Christmas.
The machine’s launch represents a welcome milestone for Robotics Plus, which has also developed an automated log scale scanner for use on logging trucks, alongside its automated apple-packers.
“A lot of the funding for this project has been through our own capital and balance sheet,” Saunders says. UGV production will be based out of Tauriko at Tauranga through the company’s new head office facility.