Rise of the Robots

With the announcement of Case’s autonomous tractor this week it is clear that a future of driver-less machines are on their way. This isn’t really a total surprise as we have had GPS controlled tractors since the early 2000’s and it was only a matter of time before the driver was completely replaced and while this isn’t the first driver-less tractor concept to be announced it is the first time that a major tractor manufacturer has announced their own design. This is an area that has a growing interest with robots and drones making a strong appearance at the recent Cotton Conference and Ag-Quip. But while it seems clear that that in the future we will be using robotic tractors but the question is will be using large robotic tractors such as Case’s or many swarm bots like those from SwarmFarm and QUT’s Agbot?

The idea behind swarm bots is that their are many smaller robots working on the same farm or even the same paddock, they share information on the task and work to complete it in the most efficient way they can. The other great thing about the concept of swarm farming is that because the machinery is so small it causes very little compaction doing minimal damage to the soil. Compaction is already an issue facing many farmers and the issue is growing with the ever increasing size of the machinery. Compaction is a problem because the weight of the machines squash the soil making it hard and impenetrable for the roots of plants limiting their ability to access water and nutrients, the poor structure can also affect drainage leaving the soil susceptible to water logging. Currently compaction is being managed through the use of GPS controlled machines that travel along “tram tracks”. These “tram tracks” are the wheel tracks that are left by machine as it travels up and down the field limiting the compaction to that particular area of the field. However as this is a completely new technology it will require any producers that adopt the technology to change over all their equipment to these new machines. The other issue that may occur with using swarm bots is that as their is more machinery their is likely to be more maintenance.

Case’s new autonomous tractor and the autonomous tractors from other companies have the advantage of being able to use the farms already existing  machinery but do not address the compaction issue. Both the swarm bots and the autonomous tractors have the advantage of removing the need for a operator which will be a great advantage in a environment where it is constantly becoming more difficult to find operators. However what will happen when something goes wrong? How will it know when a bolt breaks? These machines will need to be covered in senors monitoring it for any sign of failure and will most likely need to be constantly monitored by someone.

Robotic tractors will soon be amongst us and I suspect that we will be seeing them in our fields before we see driver-less cars on the roads. My only questions is which way the industry go?

 

 

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Earth Moving

Since harvest finished we have been levelling out and restoring the slight slope to all the fields that had chickpeas in them, all the fields lose their level and slope over time from irrigation and other farm processes like ploughing. These particular fields were also flooded in the 2012 floods causing a large amount of silt to dumped in various spots over the field destroying the slope.

To restore the slope and level of the field the first step is to go over each field with the grader board to knock out the stubble, level the hills and flatten out all the little bumps and ditches. The grader board goes over each field twice at different angles going across the rows to get the best possible level on it.

The Grader Board in Action

The Grader Board in Action

After the grader board goes though the surveyor enters the field and takes survey heights every 50 metres in the field, these spot heights are then laid out on a map and the slope is worked out. For each height on the map the desired height and the difference is written out on the map to determine whether that height is lower (fill section) than the desired height or if the height is higher (cut section).

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Map of Field 9 with All The Spot Heights Marked

The data is then loaded into the laser, the laser is put in the middle of the field and sends a signal to the bucket that tells it to lift or lower the bucket depending on the height it needs to make that area of the field. When the bucket is full they dump it over a fill section to get it to the level that it needs to be at. After the field has been levelled by the laser bucket the grader board goes back over it to give it the final trim and join up sections that may have been levelled to different heights.

While this process sounds pretty quick and simple it took 8 days for the two laser buckets to do the one field in the picture above, for a video of the laser bucket action see below.

Harvest

The New Holland header arrived on the farm at 6pm last Thursday ready to start the chickpea harvest as soon as it could, by the time I arrived on the scene the following morning it had already done 30 acres during the night empting the header straight into the field bins. I was on the chaser bin, it goes into the field to unload the header and take the grain back to the field bins where it waits to be collected by the trucks and taken to town.

The Office

The Office

The harvest got off to a rough start with the header blowing a hydraulic hose and being down for a few hours while the operator tried to source and fit a replacement part. After the hose was fixed we were up and running again for a few hours before stopping to blow down the header, the header is blown down with air from a high powered air compressor to remove plant dust and help prevent fires (Chickpeas have a reputation for fires). Unfortunately our efforts were in vain as the operator smelt smoke a couple of hours later and rushed to put out the fire. He initially found smouldering chickpea dust behind the battery compartment and worked to put it out with his water bottle while I brought the water tanker over to header (luckly we keep it close by just in case). We soon found that it wasn’t just behind the batteries and was actually over most of the header, after soaking it down and blowing it down again we continued into the night.

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Unloading the Header

The following day we had another two fires that caused us to stop for a bit, the first was during the day and soon dealt with but the second occurred late at night and by the time it was detected it was hot enough to bubbled the paint on the side of header. Fortunately these were the last fires that we had.

On Sunday a second header arrived, a John Deere to work along side the New Holland, this kept me going flat out trying to service the two headers with small eight ton chaser bin and its slow moving auger. We also had to get another road train out to empty the field bins as the second header had doubled the pace of the harvest and one road train wasn’t enough to keep up any more. But come Monday we were back to only one truck and still with two headers.

The Big Bin Jammed its Auger

The Big Bin Jammed its Auger

These problems were only made worst when one of the field bins had its floor auger jam under the weight of the full load, this left us with two smaller usable field bins as rushed to empty the large field bin, removing the weight and unjamming the auger. To do this we opened the slides on the bottom of the field bin and used a portable auger to empty it directly into the truck, once we a had removed enough of the weight in the bin we manually moved the floor auger back and forwards to try and get some movement in it. Luckily we were able to free it up and getting it going again relativity quickly and the harvest was soon over.

With any luck a video from the harvest will up on YouTube soon  and should appear at the bottom of the post.

A New Member To The Mustering Crew?

On Friday I was lucky enough to be able to go for a burn in a gyro and I have to say it was the most fun I’ve had in a while, by the time we landed I had a ear to ear grin that would have rivalled the Jokers. So what is a gyro and why did it leave me so excited?

A gyrocopter (also known as autogyro or gyroplane) looks like a cross between a plane and helicopter, the power provided by the rear mounted engine powered propeller while the lift is generated by the free spinning rotor. Today’s gyro’s have evolved into thier own type of aircraft, they are a far cry from old “build Sunday crash Monday  home builds and even further from their distant 1920’s ancestors that looked like a mongrel cross between a helicopter and a plane.

The Original gyro

The Original Style

While today’s gyro’s may look a bit like a helicopter it flies and handles more like a fixed wing aircraft in the air but it there are some key differences, particularly during take off and landing. During the take off roll you start with the stick fully back and slowly push it forward to keep the nose just off the ground it gets airborne, on landing is different in that you land with a very steep approach and very little speed due to stall speed of zero. These characteristics give it some advantages over both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft that may be of use in agriculture and farming.

The New Generation

The New Generation

The gyrocopter that I flew in was the MTO Sport by the German company “Auto-Gyro” (bet thought long and hard about that one), it seemed to be a very stable aircraft in level flight but if you started to play with the stick you’d soon find out that it could be as manoeuvrable as you wanted it to be, with the only disadvantage being  that it can’t go negative g with out losing its lift. One of the biggest advantages is that it can’t stall, the aircraft can fly at almost any speed, with it being able to even drop back to zero without the aircraft plummeting from the sky, instead it just gently drops giving you plenty of time to apply the power (I know I was nervous watching the air speed indicator steadily drop back to zero). Another advantage is the incredible amount of visibility, the open cockpit and lack of wings allow for a brilliantly clear picture of the ground below as well as the surroundings making it easy to spot cattle, check fences and turkey nests. While the cockpit may be open the windshield keeps you well protected from wind and even the rain (so I’ve been told).

300ft

300ft

The hard deck for a gyrocopter is 300ft above ground level (AGL) which is 200ft below a what RA-Aus registered aircraft will be allowed to do, however if you get a low level endorsement you can go as low as you want over your own property (you here some stories of the grass brushing the bottom of the aircraft). Cost factor has to be the biggest advantage of all as a brand new gyrocopter will only cost you somewhere $80k-$100k depending on the options you choose and has a running cost of about $60 a hour compared to the $400 a hour a R22 would cost.

I believe the gyrocopter shows great potential for use on stations for mustering as well as other station duties, I’ve even seen you tube videos of one with a spray boom set up on it. But there is one thing I know for sure and that is I’m defiantly getting my endorsement when I can.

As always feel free to leave your own thoughts and comments below, and enjoy the videos of some gyros in action.

How The 7760 Works

The other week I wrote about the John Deere 7760 and how it has changed cotton picking in Australia, while I mentioned some of its features and its advantages I didn’t mention how it worked. While the 7760 is large machine with many moving parts how it works is pretty simple at a basic level, lets start by looking at some of the main parts.

I believe that their are four main parts that are essential to the piking process; they are the heads, suction (chutes and fan), the basket and the round baler. All of these parts need to work together in order to take the cotton off the plant and build it into a durable round bale (sometimes called eggs) that can be transported to the gin for processing into bales.

Cotton Picker Labeled

The Main Parts Of The 7760

The process for making a round bale starts in the heads where the spindles rip the cotton from the plants as they pass though the heads, the spindles are like of long metal fingers that stick out horizontally and sit on top of one another. While the picker is working they spin at high speeds inside the heads removing the cotton from the plant and delivering it to the back of the heads where they are sucked up by the chutes. The chutes use airflow created by a large fan to suck the cotton from the back of heads and into the basket, while the cotton goes through the chutes it will pass the “Cotton Mass Flow Sensor” that detects the amount of cotton flowing through the picker and will use it help make a yield map of the crop.

Once through the chutes the cotton will accumulate in the basket until it is full, then once the basket is full a alarm will sound in the cab and the operator will use their foot to press a button on the floor of the cab, this starts the belts that feed the cotton from the basket and into the round baler where it starts to form a egg. After repeating this process a few of times a full egg is formed and ready to wrapped. The wrapping process starts with a specially designed non-stick section of the wrapping plastic being fed through rollers to make the initial wrap, this prevents the cotton becoming stuck to the plastic. After the non stick plastic section has made the first wrap a second wrap is made with a sticky section to hold it all together before a third wrap is made with another non stick section to cover the outside. The picker can hold four roles of wrap in storage while using one working wrap, they are easy to load and can be done with only the push of the button.

A couple of other interesting features about the 7760 is that unlike most other farm machinery it’s auto-steer doesn’t run off GPS, instead sensors in the heads detect to the rows of the cotton plant and follow them instead. How ever it still will use GPS to detect where it is in the field and will create a yield map of the field with the data collect from the “Cotton Mass Flow Sensor”.

The Display With Field Map

The Display With Field Map

I hope this helps to explain how the John Deere 7760 actually works to pick the cotton and create a egg, as always if you have any questions or want to leave a comment feel free to do so below. Also be sure to check out some of the new photos on Farming Photo’s including one which recently won a prize at the Moree Show, and make sure you also check out  this weeks Cotton Career.

Technology Moving Straight Ahead

Last weeks post came to you live from the tractor, which I think just goes to show how far technology has come to allow me to write a post and publish it on the Internet with pictures all while sitting in the seat of a working tractor in the field. While that shows the power of the smart phone, how was I keeping the rows straight? With most of my attention focused on writing the post the rows must be wonky, but they weren’t, why?

The GPS Will Kept The Tractor Running Straight Night Or Day

The GPS Will Kept The Tractor Running Straight Night Or Day

Well firstly I didn’t put the rows in I was on the roller so the rows were already there, secondly I wasn’t driving. So who was driving? Well the tractor was, via the GPS. During normal work in the field the tractor steers itself using the GPS system, multiple satellites work in conjunction with a ground station which has a fixed location to work out the exact location of the tractor in the field and where it should be in order to keep a straight line. The GPS computer then tells the tractors steering system which way to turn and by how much so it can keep a straight line or at least with in two centimetres of it which is more accurate than any operator can drive. How ever a operator is still needed to turn the tractor around at the end of the row as well as monitor temperatures, pressures, levels and the such. So where to from here?

The Green Star Unit Is What Keeps A John Deere Running Straight

The Green Star Unit Is What Keeps A John Deere Running Straight

Well in an exciting development coming out the USA we may soon have fully automated tractors that not only keep straight but turn around as well thanks to the development of the Spirit Autonomous Tractor, while it may look like a German WWI tank minus the guns it is jammed packed full of the latest technology and doesn’t even have a cab or need operator. This diesel-electric tractor is fully autonomous with only one controller needed to control up to 16 tractors with in a 40km radius, you can even have multiple tractors working the same field. While these machines are not in the production stage yet there are working prototypes. While this technology is promising and shows great potential I do have some questions about it, how well can it dodge an obstacle like a tree or power pole with the twelve row rig it could be potentially taking to the field? And how well can the controller identify a problem such as a broken pin on the rig or a the rig clogging up with trash from his control room? I guess only time will tell and I’ll be very excited to see a working model in Australia hopefully very soon.

 

The Future?

The Future?

 

Thanks for reading and as always please feel free to leave your comments or questions in the comment section below.

 

Back At It

Yes that’s right I’ve got two weeks break from uni so I’m back in Moree and back at work. Which means that today’s post is coming to you live from the tractor. Unfortunately because its live from the tractor there’s bound to be a few typos due the bumpy ride as I type it on my iPhone, so I’ll apologise in advance.

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It’s all go go go here at the moment we’ve got the cotton picker charging ahead in the field with the three tractors following up behind preparing the soil for the next crop.

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When the cotton is picked the cotton picker leaves the plant mostly in tack so the first machine to go through the field after the picker is the slasher-root cutter. This machine slashes the cotton plant above ground and cuts the roots below ground to stop it coming back in the following season. After the cotton has be slashed the ground needs to be prepared for the next crop.

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As this is a irrigation property we don’t use zero till in the irrigation blocks, instead we need to put hills in so the plants have a good seed bed and there are furrows for the water to flow down. To do this we run a plough through once and figs the furrows while building up the hills. However these hills still aren’t a great seed bed and need one final machine to finish it off.

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When the hills are formed the tops are narrow, uneven and filled with clods of earth. To fix this and make it suitable for planting a roller needs to be run over them which flattens out the tops and helps to break up the clods of firth leaving it ready for next season’s crop.

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Again I’d like to apologise for any typos as it is difficult to type while in the tractor. As always if you have any questions or want to leave a comment feel free to do so below and make sure you check out the latest Cotton Career this weeks is Ag Pilot.