"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Could robot tractors revolutionize agriculture?

Sept. 20, 2011
Courtesy of Cath­o­lic Uni­vers­ity of Leu­ven
and World Science staff

A rit­u­al old­er than civ­il­iz­a­tion it­self—the farm­er ris­ing at dawn to till the fields all day—could be­come a thing of the past, if a group of Dutch re­search­ers and en­gi­neers has its way.

The team has en­gi­neered a self-steer­ing robotic trac­tor. It adapts to dif­fer­ent ter­rains and ad­justs its speed and the tight­ness of its turns au­to­mat­ic­ally, ac­cord­ing to the devel­op­ers, with the Mecha­tron­ics Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter in Flan­ders and the Cath­o­lic Uni­vers­ity of Leu­ven, the Neth­er­lands.

A prototype ro­bot­ic trac­t­or de­vel­oped by re­search­ers with the Me­ch­a­tron­ics Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter in Flan­ders and the Cath­o­lic Uni­vers­ity of Leu­ven, both in the Neth­er­lands. (Cour­tesy K.U. Leu­ven)

They plan to un­veil a pro­to­type at the an­nu­al In­terna­t­ional Ag­ri­cul­ture and Hor­ti­cul­ture Days of Mech­a­nisa­t­ion on Sept. 24 and 25 in Oude­naarde, Bel­gium.

“We started by in­stal­ling a lin­ear pro­pul­sion sys­tem to press the gas ped­al down and steer. Then we equipped the trac­tor with a com­put­er and var­i­ous ad­di­tion­al po­si­tion­al sen­sors, in­clud­ing a GPS sys­tem,” said Er­ik Hostens, proj­ect en­gi­neer for the Mecha­tron­ics Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter.

Next came the most im­por­tant chal­lenge, he added: en­gi­neering a steer­ing sys­tem. “Only ex­pe­ri­enced trac­tor op­er­a­tors have the skills needed to work a field with pre­ci­sion,” he not­ed. “The job of an op­er­a­tor is really quite com­plex: he ob­serves the trac­tor’s cur­rent po­si­tion, makes a judge­ment based on ter­rain con­di­tions and the route to be fol­lowed, and, based on all this, de­cides the speed and ori­enta­t­ion of the trac­tor. All these ac­tions had to be in­te­grat­ed in­to the au­to­mat­ed steer­ing sys­tem. The sys­tem reg­is­ters po­si­tion­al changes in real-time with a GPS and ad­justs it­self ac­cord­ingly.”

The con­stantly chang­ing ground con­di­tions pre­s­ent a spe­cial chal­lenge, the de­vel­op­ers said. “The trac­tor must be ca­pa­ble of driv­ing in both hard and wet ter­rain,” said Greg­o­ry Pinte of the Cen­ter. “Tra­di­tional naviga­t­ion sys­tems are un­able to han­dle mul­ti­-ter­rain con­di­tions. In­stead, a dif­fer­ent set­ting must be cal­i­brat­ed for each ter­rain type. That’s why we de­vel­oped a steer­ing sys­tem that in­tu­its ter­rain con­di­tions and es­ti­mates the ex­pected wheel slip­page. Based on a mod­el of the trac­tor, the op­ti­mal speed and turn­ing ra­di­us is cal­cu­lat­ed, in real-time, for the cur­rent ter­rain type. This ‘s­mart steer­ing’ al­lows for pre­ci­sion down to the cen­time­ter.”

“The im­por­tance of pre­ci­sion steer­ing for ag­ri­cul­tur­al ma­chines has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly, par­tic­u­larly with the ar­ri­val of or­gan­ic farm­ing,” said Wouter Saeys, a col­la­bo­ra­tor in the proj­ect with Cath­o­lic Uni­vers­ity of Leu­ven. “Ac­cu­rate po­si­tioning of the ma­chine is es­sen­tial.”

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A ritual older than civilization itself—the farmer rising at dawn to till the fields all day—could become a thing of the past, if a group of Dutch researchers and engineers has its way. The team has engineered a self-steering robotic tractor. It adapts to different terrains and adjusts its speed and the tightness of its turns automatically, according to the researchers with the Mechatronics Technology Center in Flanders and the Catholic University of Leuven, the Netherlands. They plan to unveil a prototype at the annual International Agriculture and Horticulture Days of Mechanisation on Sept. 24 and 25 in Oudenaarde, Belgium. “We started by installing a linear propulsion system to press the gas pedal down and steer. Then we equipped the tractor with a computer and various additional positional sensors, including a GPS system,” said Erik Hostens, project engineer for the Mechatronics Technology Center. Next came the most important challenge, he added: engineering a steering system. “Only experienced tractor operators have the skills needed to work a field with precision,” he noted. “The job of an operator is really quite complex: he observes the tractor’s current position, makes a judgement based on terrain conditions and the route to be followed, and, based on all this, decides the speed and orientation of the tractor. All these actions had to be integrated into the automated steering system. The system registers positional changes in real-time with a GPS and adjusts itself accordingly.” Constantly changing ground conditions present a special challenge, the developers said. “The tractor must be capable of driving in both hard and wet terrain,” said Gregory Pinte of the Center. “Traditional navigation systems are unable to handle multi-terrain conditions. Instead, a different setting must be calibrated for each terrain type. That’s why we developed a steering system that intuits terrain conditions and estimates the expected wheel slippage. Based on a model of the tractor, the optimal speed and turning radius is calculated, in real-time, for the current terrain type. This ‘smart steering’ allows for precision down to the centimetre.” “The importance of precision steering for agricultural machines has increased significantly, particularly with the arrival of organic farming,” said Wouter Saeys, a collaborator in the project with Catholic University of Leuven. “Accurate positioning of the machine is essential.”