Robotics and Autonomous Equipment
Moorehead explained that John Deere has already developed a lot of automated manned equipment systems. “The iTEC Pro is automating everything on the tractor,” he said. But what it doesn’t include is “perception safeguarding” which is necessary for autonomous machinery operations.
Moorehead described a field research project being conducted in an orange grove in Florida. This autonomous unit of tractor-pulled mower and sprayer system has proven itself to be efficient and worthwhile for an orchard or other types of specialty crop production.
ORANGE GROVE RESEARCH
“The system has the perception for safeguarding—the ability for the vehicle to see what is in its environment and understand what it is able to drive through, such as four- or five-foot tall grass, and what it is not able to drive through—four- or five-foot tall people, utility vehicles or a pickup truck. The system we are using makes use of multiple sensors,” he said. “We combine things such as laser scanners, color cameras and even a radar system for identification.”
This supervised autonomy mower and sprayer unit stops when it needs help to determine if an obstruction is a concern or a false alarm problem. One operator is available for being messaged via smartphone or a computer. The simplicity of the system in this controlled orchard grove is allowing one operator/supervisor to oversee two autonomous units. As Moorehead noted, in the last 18 months the supervisor operator has been contacted on average every 20 minutes, which means one operator could oversee up to 10 of these units in a controlled environment.
He explained how the supervised autonomous units with “optimal mapping plans” are loaded with a computer logarithm for determining the shortest path so that they are averaging 10 percent shorter distance than a manual-driven unit.
Additionally, even more importantly, Moorehead said, the autonomous units have spent a greater percentage of the day operating at maximum speeds than a manually driven unit, which has accounted for about a 30 percent increase in productivity per tractor.
An orchard is a difficult environment to test under because of the misalignment of some trees and limbs, tall grass hiding potential obstacles and tight quarters of little unused room. But the best aspect of an orchard is that it is a controlled access area where the autonomous unit does not have unauthorized people or vehicles wandering through the environment.