Improving technology, coupled with the difficulty of sourcing seasonal labour, has led to a significant investment for a Suffolk, UK fresh produce business.
Home Farm Nacton has taken delivery of a Robotti 150D from Danish manufacturer Agrointelli, claimed to be the first robotic tractor to be fully operational on a farm in the UK. The business produces both organic and conventional vegetables, including leeks, brassicas, onions, red beet, potatoes, fodder beet, sugar beet and cereals, across 1,940ha. The business was looking for ways to adopt more advanced technology into the business, and the Robotti ticked all the boxes.
According to farm director Andrew Williams, he became aware of the Robotti through the business’ membership of agricultural co-op Fram Farmers.
“Fram’s machinery manager, Gordon Cummings, had been looking into the use of robotics in the fresh produce sector for two years,” he said. “Gordon put us in touch with the team at Agrointelli, who have been enormously helpful and knowledgeable.
“By January, I had approval from Home Farm’s board of directors, who were easily convinced that this was the right step forward. From a business point of view, we’re confident that this is where the future lies.
“A large amount of our produce is organic, so we are increasingly limited in how we can control weeds,” Mr Williams added. “Mechanical weeding is repetitive work, as is manual weeding, and sourcing seasonal, overseas labour is becoming increasingly difficult. We wanted to future-proof the farm and Robotti is perfectly suited to our set-up.”
The Robotti 150D began operation on the farm in mid-April, weeding a number of vegetable crops using a harrow attachment. According to Agrointelli, this is one of 50 robots that will be working in Europe by the end of the year.
“It can be in operation 24 hours a day, so there’s a long window of opportunity for it to make a difference in the crucial weeding stages of the crops, fitting well into our cropping plan,” Mr Williams said. “It does exactly what we need, moving soil in the early stage of growth with guaranteed precision.
“It will initially be used for weeding this year, but we also plan to use it for topping and drilling in the future, maybe even transplanting or – who knows?”
Designed and manufactured by Agrointelli, the Robotti 150D is autonomously controlled by GPS via an onboard computer. It doesn’t depending on a human operator, instead following a pre-programmed planned route in the field.
The model at Home Farm has two Kubota 75hp Diesel or biofuel engines. The left-hand engine propels the machine and powers the conventional three-point hitch, meaning it can be fitted with standard implements and perform multiple tasks in the field throughout the season. The right-hand engine drives the PTO. Each engine has a 110-litre fuel tank that is enough for the machine to run continuously for approximately 24 hours.
“The accuracy lies in the GPS mapped field, with Robotti taking the same exact lines every time,” Agrointelli sales manager Frederik Rom said. “It’s equipped with RTK GPS, so the set up on any farm is simple. It took approximately 10 minutes to map a four-acre field at Home Farm, and a further 10 minutes to log the weeding plan into the system. It’s important for this to be accurate from the start, as it will determine reliable performance.”
Safety and performance
Field obstacles such as telegraph poles or trees are logged at the programming stage. Any other obstacles outside of this will make Robotti stop in its tracks for safety, until the obstacle is removed from its path. In the office at Home Farm, Mr Williams has access to the online Robotti portal, providing real-time updates of the machine’s progress.
“I can leave Robotti working in the field quite happily, knowing it will send me an alert if there is an issue, or if something unexpected is in its way,” he said. “It has front and rear cameras, that I can view at any time. I’m able to check the progress of crop growth at any location within that field, without having to walk to see it.
“The portal tells me how much fuel is in the tank, how many hours it has done and how much time it has left before the fuel runs out. It will also tell me when it’s finished one field, so I can ensure it’s taken to the next field to start its new job.”
While Home Farm Nacton is largely light land, development trials in Denmark show that the Robotti also works well on heavier land, and is especially effective with bed systems and row crops as it carries the implement in the centre, evenly distributing the weight on all four wheels. The low ground pressure, low weight and four-wheel drive means it’s less likely to get stuck than a conventional tractor, also reducing the risk of soil compaction and structural damage to the soil.
“The interest in autonomous tractors has been around a long time, and we’re delighted to have been involved in bringing this to the UK for Andrew and the team at Home Farm Nacton,” Gordon Cummings added.
“The process has been simple, and we’re proud to now be able to offer this supplier relationship to other Fram Farmers members. I’m sure that many of our fresh produce grower members will have the chance to see Robotti in operation at Home Farm during the next few months, demonstrating the benefits and efficiencies that forward-thinking technology can bring to the sector.”
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