Revealing a glimpse into the future, CNH Industrial’s tractor brands, Case IH and New Holland, showed autonomous tractors at this week’s Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.
Better use of labour, the ability to integrate into current machinery fleets, plus the flexibility to work unmanned around the clock with real time data monitoring, were just a few of the design criteria laid out by CNH Industrial for its autonomous concept tractors.
Based on existing Case IH Magnum and New Holland T8 conventional tractors, and using GPS in conjunction with accurate satellite correction signals for precise guidance and immediate recording and transmission of field data, the concepts have been designed to allow complete remote deployment, monitoring and control of the machines.
The concept tractors are configured as two distinct versions. These offer the potential to use CNH Industrial’s autonomous technology to completely remove the operator from the cab – in the case of the cabless concept Case IH Magnum.
Conversely, the New Holland T8 NHDrive concept tractor maintains its cab to offer operating flexibility, with traditional human operation for road transport and when performing tasks currently unsuited to automation, such as loader work. Autonomous mode is then engaged when compatible tasks are performed. In either format, the machines can be integrated into existing fleets, says CNHI, and aside from the driverless technology, they use a conventional engine, transmission, chassis and implement couplings.
Case IH Brand President Andreas Klauser says, “While we offer auto-steering and telematics on our equipment today for remote management of farm machinery, this autonomous tractor concept demonstrates how our customers and their employees could remotely monitor and control machines directly.”
Mr Klauser explained the concept was created to validate the technology and to collect customer feedback regarding their interest and the need for future autonomous products for their operations.
A fully interactive interface has been developed to control the autonomous tractors, while at the same time providing immediate and secure feedback, recording and transfer of operational data. The process of operating either tractor begins with inputting field boundary maps into the system, and then using the integrated path planning software to plot the most efficient field paths for machines – autonomous technology is most suited to jobs which make this possible, and which require minimal complex operator intervention, such as cultivation, planting, spraying and mowing, says the company.
This system automatically accounts for implement widths, and also plots the most efficient paths when working with multiple machines, including those operating with different implement widths and with varying operating requirements. Manual path plotting can also be carried out for re-fueling or when custom paths are required.
Once path plotting has finished, the user can choose a job from a pre-programmed menu by selecting the vehicle, choosing the field and then setting the tractor out on its task.
Subsequently, the machine and implement can be monitored and controlled either via a desktop computer or via a portable tablet interface, which can both display three operating screens. This enables users to access this data, wherever they are. In addition, farmers will maintain full control and ownership of their data.
A path-plotting screen shows the tractor’s progress, another shows its live camera feeds, providing the user with up to four real time views (two front and two rear), while a further screen enables monitoring and modification of key machine and implement parameters such as engine speed, fuel levels and implement settings – seeding rate or planter downforce, for example. The route to the field can also be planned, should this involve negotiable private roads or tracks.
The autonomous tractors can be monitored and controlled from various locations, such as another machine.
In common with both concepts is a complete sensing and perception package, which includes radar, LiDAR (range finding lasers) and video cameras to ensure obstacles or obstructions in the tractor’s path or that of the implement are detected and avoided.
Should an object be detected in the tractor’s path, visual and audio warnings appear on the control interface – either tablet interface or desktop – which offers a choice of how the tractor should respond; by waiting for human intervention, driving around the obstacle using either a manually or automatically plotted path, or, in the event something such as a straw pile or tree branch, driving onwards.
Should something – for example, another machine – cross its path and continue moving, it will come to a momentary standstill and move off again once its way is clear.
In the case of low fuel or seed levels, the same notifying system is employed. Any critical machine alarms or loss of critical machine control functions cause the autonomous vehicle to stop automatically for safety reasons, while a stop button on the control interface can be activated manually for the same purpose.
The tractor can be left to carry out its task, monitored remotely through the tablet interface. Its screen also allows machine and implement settings to be altered remotely. Machine tasks can be modified in real time, such as if a storm is approaching. In the future these concept tractors will be able to use ‘big data’ such as real time weather satellite information to automatically make best use of ideal conditions, independent of human input, regardless of the time of day. For example the tractor would stop automatically should it become apparent changeable weather would cause a problem, then recommence work when conditions would have sufficiently improved. Alternatively, if on private roads, they can be sent to another field destination where conditions are better – soils are lighter or there has been no rain, for example.
The tablet interface can also be mounted in another machine whose operator can supervise its activities. As an example, from the seat of a combine or tractor, the operator can monitor the progress and eventually modify the performance of an autonomous tractor/planter combination working in the same or neighbouring field. As such, autonomous tractors can integrate into an existing farm machinery fleet. Alternatively, multiple autonomous tractors can be put to work in one field or separate fields, on the same tasks or consecutive ones – such as cultivation and seeding – all of which can be controlled through the same interface.