Ag equipment giant unveils the future

John Deere’s autonomous electric tractor is a research project the company put together to see what one might look like. The machines might work in a swarm to complete field operations. The tractor uses 500 kilowatts of power, with 250 used by the drives and the other 250 powering an implement. In total, this prototype has approximately 670 horsepower. | Robin Booker photo

John Deere’s Future Technology Zone displayed research into automation, electrification and artificial intelligence

HANNOVER, Germany — New agricultural products are being launched at a breakneck speed, and some of the more innovative offerings are launched by small and nimble companies that can quickly transform trail-blazing technologies into agricultural platforms.

Large companies can be at a disadvantage when it comes to rapid use of the latest innovations because they need to maintain the integrity of their brand and tend to sell proven products.

However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t working on the latest technological developments behind the scene.

During Agritechnica, John Deere used its Future Technology Zone to show how it is actively researching and developing farming systems of the future.

“In this area we talk about the future, how it could be, how it will be,” said Martin Stauch of John Deere.

“What you will see is a lot of concepts around electrification, artificial intelligence, automation and autonomy.”

John Deere has experimented with installing its spray systems on multiple drone platforms. Its swarm system is scalable to fit the needs of small and large farms. Growers drop off the drone boxes off where they are needed, and retrieve them when the job is complete. | Robin Booker photo

Most of the products displayed in this booth are nowhere near commercialization, but they are all at least in the prototype stage and being researched in field conditions.

Of these products and concepts, the closest to market is the new John Deere eAutoPower transmission, which is the first electro-mechanical power split transmission that makes tractor-implement electrification possible.

The German Agricultural Society awarded the eAutoPower transmission the only Gold Medal for new product at Agritechnica.

There was a working model on display, which is also the durability test hardware the company uses to test how the system holds up when installed in a John Deere 8R tractor.

“This is more than just a model at Agritechnica. We’re in test and going to production within a couple years,” said Curtis Jensen, John Deere program manager for E-auto Power.

“Essentially we replaced the hydro module, and we replaced it with two permanent magnet electric machines that you see on top of the transmission. The electric machines are powered by the inverter. The top inverter actually provides the control and power for the electric machines on the transmission.”

The bottom inverter is used to take up to 100 kilowatts of power off-board to power implements such as the Joskin manure spreading trailer.

The drone swarm spot-spray system relies heavily on autonomy. | Robin Booker photo

“We call them motor generators — MG1 and MG2,” Jensen said.

“MG1 is connected to the engine shaft and MG2 is connected to the inside of the transmission to provide the variability. They can both act as motors or generators.”

He said in terms of efficiency the transmission is comparable to a hydro-mechanical transmission.

“But there are certain operation points where when you’re running with a partial load like you are with a hydraulic IVT, that this will be significantly better,” Jensen said.

A design feature has power shifted from the tractor to drive implement wheels.

In the case of the Joskin trailer, the electric engine is connected to a drive shaft that powers the trailer’s two axles.

However, implements such as seeders could also be fitted with electric drives on its wheels to increase traction.

Drone sprayers self-load and recharge automatically. The bottom box in the stack holds the water and product required to spray crops. | Robin Booker photo

“You can now take ballast, say up to two to three tonnes of ballast off the tractor, and leverage the ballast on the trailer, and go from maybe a six metre to up to a nine metre tool,” Jensen said.

He said the draft force for ground-engaging tools goes up exponentially as the rate of travel increases.

So if the tractor travels slower, it’s able to pull a wider implement.

“We’re seeing up to 30 to 40 percent more productivity, at maybe a 15 to 20 percent lower cost because we’re not wasting the power in slip,” Jensen said.

“If you get a tractor like this and you’re going up a hill, for example, and you can’t pull the load, that’s wasted energy.”

The controls of the implement drives are integrated into the tractor controls.

“The operator will simply push a button,” he said.

In the John Deere eAutoPower transmission two permanent-magnet motor-generators replace the hydro-module on the tractors transmission. These are sitting on top of the transmission on the top left of the picture. On the bottom left, is a motor-generator sitting by itself. The motor-generators can act as motors or generators. One motor-generator is connected to the engine shaft while the second motor-generator is connected to the inside of the transmission. The top inverter, in the centre of the picture, just ahead and on top of the rear axle, provides the control and power for the machines on the transmission. The bottom inverter is used to send up to 100 kilowatts of power to implement. | Robin Booker photo

“Do I want low, medium or aggressive traction? So you can dial in to, say, have two percent wheel slip, or if you don’t want it that aggressive, you can dial it back a little bit.”

John Deere eAutoPower transmission is part of a new era of electrified implements, including their drive-trains. In this example, an electric motor is integrated into a drive-train installed in a Joskin manure spreader. | Robin Booker photo

He said they accidentally demonstrated during the test phase that when the tractor gets stuck, operators can pull themselves out with the implement simply by backing up.

Much further away from being commercially available is the autonomous electric tractor concept that John Deere had on display.

The compact electric drive unit, which requires 500 KW of power, was shown with an integrated tillage attachment.

“Two-hundred-and-fifty goes to the tracks, 250 can be off boarded to other components of the systems either by p.t.o., or hydraulics or off boarding in case the tool can use electric power as well,” Stauch said.

The autonomous tractor can be equipped with either wheels or tracks, have five to 15 tonnes of ballast, and will rely on energy sent to drive wheels on the implement for traction.

The idea of this research project is to see what a tractor would look like if the diesel engine and operator were subtracted. There is no fuel tank, transmission and cab, yet the concept tractor can delivers the same horsepower as a John Deere 8RX tractor.

“Our study, where field work is done by a swarm of a lot of smaller units instead of big units, is a research project together with some universities and several other countries,” Stauch said.

A big piece of the puzzle that has yet to come together is where the electricity will come from.

The current prototype uses an expensive cable that is rolled on and off a large drum on the edge of the field, and it would take a huge mass of batteries to supply enough power to the tractor.

A concept that is much closer to being a viable option for growers is the concept of taking a current production model tractor and outfitting it with autonomous technology.

The autonomous tractor research project “takes a current tractor machine form and provides the sensors needed to operate it safely in an environment like producing olive trees or wines, so that you can run an orchard sprayer safely in this environment.”

The autonomous tractor concept could be a solution to keep producers safely away from confined environments such as orchids when they are sprayed.

He said operators can switch the tractor off autonomous mode and drive it between fields, so very little would need to happen before this could be deployed in terms of new laws or insurance for autonomous equipment on roads.

The autonomous sprayer being developed and tested by John Deere is set on tracks with a 1.5 metre footprint and has variable clearance that goes as high as 1.8 metres, a nine metre boom and a 560 litre tank. It can also travel up to 15 km-h.

Deere’s autonomous sprayer prototype has a 9-metre boom, 560 liter tank, and can travel up to 15 km-h. The autonomous ground sprayer was built light so that it can travel on wet fields without causing ruts. This extends its spray window and enables growers to better stage nutrient and crop protection applications. | Robin Booker photo

“What we wanted to do is give a little bit of a glimpse of where we think the future is going, particularly around some of the application equipment that we’re developing,” said Jay Witkop, product line planning manager at John Deere.

“What we’re trying to do is improve the time that we spend in the field, and part of that is a machine that’s very light weight, so we can get in when the soils are wetter, so we can get more run time.”

He said extending the spray window will help growers improve the timing of nutrient and pesticide applications.

For instance, with late season nutrition or fungicide application in corn.

The robotic prototype uses John Deere’s ExactApply application system, is currently outfitted with a gas power plant and uses hydraulic drives on the tracks and electrical actuators to move the boom.

The drone swarm spot spray concept uses a scout drone and spray drones as well as a portable base station that automatically refills the drones and changes their batteries.

“One drone leaves, it flies at about 50 meters, scans the field, locates all the weeds in the field and returns. It transmits the location of all the weeds to the rest of the drones,” said Aaron Wells of John Deere.

Once the prescription and flight patterns are received, the spot spray drones will then automatically pull in the correct chemical for a specific job from one of the three 60-litre tanks, as well as water from the 1,000 litre water tank in the bottom section of the base station.

The base station can be loaded on a trailer and transported to the field, or it can be set in a permanent location, such as beside existing water and chemical handling facilities.

Wells said the spot spray concept is scalable.

“You can also have as many or as few of the drone boxes that would make sense for the operation, as it’s scalable to right size it to whatever you’re operations looks like,” Wells said.

“The idea is that you could deploy these around your operation in the morning and pick them up the next day, the next night, two days later, however long it would take them to accomplish the job you had for them.”

The cab controls that John Deere displayed, called Command Cab, is a command centre for agricultural activities for a fleet of autonomous equipment and not just for the tractor in which it’s installed.

The cab is surrounded with screens that operators can use to assign tasks for any of the equipment connected to the system and then monitor their progress.

Weather data, telematics, support data and all field and production information will all easily assessable to operators.

A Volocopter drone outfitted with a John Deere spray system was also shown in the Future Technology Zone, which will be detailed in an upcoming story in The Western Producer.

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