Horsch has revealed it is working on developments from task automation to autonomous driving systems, and has designed its own autonomous vehicle, the Horsch Roboter, as a development platform for the company to explore these technologies.
Michael and Philipp Horsch have focused on automation and autonomous driving systems since the early 2000s, when they bought the first AutoFarm GPS steering system. It was the first RTK system that allowed for driving within the range of a centimetre.
“We immediately thought ‘If something like this works, we should also be able to drive completely autonomously’,” Michael Horsch said. “When we bought our research farm, AgroVation in the Czech Republic, we had the chance to focus on CTF and track planning. We originally started with an agronomic point of view, but we soon realised that CTF first and foremost is about planning. This was another step towards autonomous driving systems.”
There are many things associated with the term autonomous that Philipp Horsch would rather call automation.
“Take the example of a tractor that drives with GPS and can reverse on its own,” he said. “This is only an automation step, there’s still somebody sitting on the machine who controls it. Autonomous means there’s no driver and we’re talking about different vehicles, vehicles without a cabin.
“What’s extremely important is that automation comes before autonomous driving. It’s definitely the first step. Automation has been an important topic for years and we’ve been making good progress. However, there are still quite a few hurdles to clear until we reach complete autonomy.”
To be able to work in a partially autonomous way today, there are three special requirements: the track planning system; geofencing (a digital fence); and the safety issue.
“Today, we solve it by placing a ‘driver’ with a remote control in the field to monitor everything and to intervene in case of emergency,” Philipp Horsch added. “The remote control is effective for a 500m range, and this ensures we can work in the field in a partially autonomous way and be safe.”
The next step will be a sensor system so that the machine can be monitored, for example, clogging detection.
“From a technical point of view, we’re working on different concepts,” Philipp Horsch said. “We know we have to take different concepts into the field, exercise repeatedly, learn and develop further.”
Putting autonomous driving systems into practice requires not only technical innovations but also changes in the law. At the moment, for example, the law in some EU states treats the road and field as equal. In Michael Horsch’s opinion, there are significant differences regarding different speeds on road and in the field and the issue of opposing traffic.
“The need for a re-definition and the public pressure to finally create appropriate framework conditions is enormous,” he said. “If we separated road and field, we could get started in the field much faster.”
Another point he considers to be essential is the possibility of the homologation of safety concepts, such as camera systems, radar and lidar systems.
“We hope that in the next few years the safety systems will have developed in such a way that they can be homologised, from a technical point of view,” Michael Horsch added. “Currently this is only sufficient for test farms, where we can gather experiences, test machines and integrate them into the farm processes.”
In the future, the technical realisation will mainly be borne by the next generations who are growing up with today’s digital technologies.
“The time of the generation that’s into fully air-conditioned cabs and a showy bonnet is coming to an end,” Michael Horsch said. “The next generation is already waiting in the wings, is 14 to 18-years old and digitally native.
“The ability to deal with touchscreens, smartphones and tablets is almost innate. These young people control everything that moves completely intuitively and without ever having read a user manual. The users are already there, and we have to meet their requirements.”
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