Man. company helps turn tractors into robots

A package from North Star Robotics enables farmers to more easily embrace autonomous operation of farm equipment

Spotting driverless-tractors working a Canadian field will be commonplace in the near future.

Canadian growers are already retrofitting equipment with technology that enables machines to works autonomously, such as Brian Tischler’s Ag Open GPS and Matt Reimer’s tractor that pulls a grain cart up to his combine.

These solutions require a fair amount of tech savvy and a penchant for solving problems with a soldering iron and tablet.

However, starting next year, the barrier of entry into retrofitted autonomous farm equipment will get a whole lot lower as a Manitoba company begins to sell packages that enable autonomous operation of farm equipment.

North Star Robotics plans to sell into the Canadian market a package of hardware and software capable of performing jobs autonomously through taking over a tractor’s steering, transmission, throttle and hydraulics.

“We have an array of safety sensors that allow us to perceive the environment, so we have some that can tell us where the vehicle is, others that can tell us if there is something in front of the tractor,” said Shawn Schaerer, chief executive officer of North Star Robotics.

An assortment of sensors, including GPS (Swift Navigation), LIDAR, 3D cameras and sonar sensors, monitor the environment as the tractor autonomously performs tasks.

For now, North Star Robotics is focused on producing retrofit kits for small tractors.

“The sweet spot of what we do as of right now today is smaller HST (hydrostatic transmission) tractors, so 20 maybe 40 horsepower tractors,” he said.

“We have looked at doing manual transmission tractors, but that’s something that we can’t handle doing today.”

He said the company focuses on smaller tractors because they are often used for simpler tasks.

“It really has to do with the implements that are attached,” he said.

“With the smaller tractors, they aren’t as sophisticated as the larger ones, in terms of the seeders and planters, so we’re focused on the simple tasks.”

Beyond the hardware and software that will be installed on the tractor, cloud-based software is used to help operators set up jobs.

“(The cloud platform) allows an operator or farmer to input what they want the vehicle or tractor to do,” Schaerer said.

“Once they do that, they can download that to the tractor and have the tractor follow the instructions that the farmer has set up.”

To set up jobs, operators open up the company’s app and it will automatically bring in the machine’s location on a map similar to Google Earth.

“Then you can draw out your field, draw where you don’t want the robot to go,” he said.

“Press a button and it generates the entire path for you. It’s pretty straight forward.”

Operators can also drive field parameters and obstacles and then have the program generate the rest of the path.

The app is capable of remote activation, but for safety’s sake the system is being set up so that operators have to be present at the machine when it begins a job.

Schaerer said tasks that are well suited for the technology are largely associated with higher-value crops such as spraying and weeding vineyards or vegetable crops.

The system may also find a place helping maintain large yards and golf courses because mowing is a job this platform is ready to handle.

However, there are also applications for broad acre farms such as taking soil sample cores or dealing with patches of herbicide resistant weeds.

“We have developed some prototype technology that can distinguish the crops from weeds, so what’s a corn plant versus what’s a Canadian thistle?” he said.

“So weeding is one thing that this technology could help farmers with for sure, to reduce their pesticide usage.”

The weed identification technology is based on an optical camera that scans in front of the machine. The system then identifies plants with the use of artificial intelligence and deep neural networks.

Schaerer said growers will drive or haul the autonomous machine when it’s moved down or across roads because it is not legal to operate autonomous vehicles on Canadian roads.

He said North Star Robotics is already working with an original equipment manufacturer in the United States to equip its products with autonomous technology in the factory line.

The company is also working on a pilot program this January with the Winnipeg Airport Authority and Airport Technology Inc. of Portage La Prairie, Man., that involves autonomous technology installed in a snow plow.

“We are developing this autonomous plow to help clean snow from the Winnipeg airport when it starts to really snow hard and the current operation staff can’t keep up, so it’s going to be a device that will help them clear areas that they can’t normally get to if there is a real high demand or big snow storm,” he said.

Schaerer said he has two decades of experience working with automation and robotics, including five years working with neuro-surgical robots.

He’s getting into agriculture because he sees a big need for automated platforms in the industry, he added.

“We wanted to do something that would solve local problems,” Schaerer said.

North Star Robotics is evaluating a couple different business models for its autonomous retrofit for tractors, but Schaerer said it will likely cost $15,000 to $20,000 for a smaller tractor.

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