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‘The future belongs to small self-driving tractors’


 
The world was amazed at how the small Dutch company Precision Makers not only converted tractors into robotic tractors but also produced one without a cab. How did they manage faster than the major manufacturers? And where will they go from here? Marien van Breugel, Business Unit Manager at Precision Makers, shares his vision with us.

Let us briefly recap: you achieved success as a small start-up converting ordinary tractors into robotic ones. Why did this stop at the end of 2018?


“If you build an added application such as our X-pert kit into a (standard) tractor, you have to respond extremely quickly when a tractor manufacturer releases new software. What this meant was that we were only able to respond to what had happened and we could not anticipate. This made it very difficult for us, not to mention costly. The opportunity to work with a major global player such as John Deere also means that we need to focus. That is why we stopped selling our X-pert conversion kits and began focusing on collaboration and continuing the development of the cab-less Greenbot robotic tractor.”

You now have a deal with John Deere. Does that mean that you will devote yourselves entirely to John Deere products?
“Not entirely. However, much of our time will be spent on them. The deal with John Deere means that autonomous mowers will be sold through the John Deere channel on the short term. I am currently consulting with the Americans once a week. I am pleased that we are now working in a partnership with a major brand like John Deere; you can see that autonomous technology is truly being integrated in the machine and within John Deere. This means that sales, service, after-care, and continued development will be a fixed component.”


Are you saying that autonomous technology such as you are producing, will inevitably be swallowed up by a major manufacturer?
“Exactly. Our aim has always been to develop this technology, to provide a firm foundation and to ultimately sell it. Only, we did not manage to do that. I must say that I briefly thought it was possible to integrate autonomous technology within the Isobus protocol and then via Tractor Implement Management (TIM). But it turned out that most manufacturers preferred doing things their own way, rather than using a standardised Isobus.”

You also said that the major innovations in terms of autonomous technology can only successfully enter the market if they are picked up by big names such as Kubota, John Deere, Case New Holland Industrial or Agco?
“There is actually no other way. If you think about it, the major manufacturers have a global network in which parts, expertise and service are organised, and we could never have done that as a small business. Linking up with a major company is the only way to get the knowledge you have gained into the market.”

What still stand in the way of a global breakthrough?
“Two things: legislation and acceptance. As usual, legislation is an area in which we are yet to establish aspects such as liability, marking out plots where robots will be driving around. I believe that this can be resolved in the short term with pressure from the manufacturers. The other factor is acceptance. The autonomous technology is ready. It has been for a long time, in fact. But it is the farmers and greenkeepers that need to be convinced.

The best way to understand this situation is to compare it with the introduction of milking robots. When Lely launched one in 1995, they were the first to do so and farmers needed to be convinced not only of the product but also of the fact that the robot could properly milk. It was not until the number of milking robots increased markedly that we could progress, and sales grew rapidly.

We are experiencing a global problem of motivating people to enter agricultural employment. That will only accelerate the acceptance of robots

The same is true with self-propelled golf course mowers and agricultural tractors. It must also be said that we are experiencing a global problem of motivating people to enter agricultural employment. That will only accelerate the acceptance of robots.”

Five questions about robot tractors of the future
1: With or without a cab?
“Ultimately without.”

2: Small or large?
“Small. It makes practically no sense to make very large machines self-propelled. They have so much capacity that work becomes subordinate to it and you need a driver again. We believe that small machines are the most likely to be successful, because soil structure in particular will determine the machine size.”

3: Farmer or agricultural contractor?
“Hmm, good question. For very repetitive work, such as in livestock farming, the farmer will ultimately want to purchase this technology himself. But for harvesting work, I still believe in a type of service-provision environment. So yes, a form of robotic contractors will emerge.”

4: Diesel or electric?
“I still see plenty of challenges when it comes to powering everything with electricity. I am most confident in hydrogen as an energy source.”

5: Tractor or self-propelled?
“We believe that we will all get small self-propelled tractors for specific activities. We discovered that during development of the X-pert conversion kits. Every tool requires specific programming, not forgetting its own safety system. You could not attach a seed drill on the back, followed by a plough or a sprayer and expect it to work again. And if the farmer then buys a new or a different machine, you need to check once again how everything interacts and anticipates. Combining all of this into a single programme is not possible, which is why you get a small self-propelled vehicle for each cultivation method, each with its own specialism. That is where we are heading, that is what it will be: small, autonomous self-propelled vehicles.”


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