Autonomous modular vehicle from Robotics Plus to help with agricultural labor shortages

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New Zealand-based agritech company Robotics Plus has revealed the company’s autonomous multi-use, modular vehicle platform for agriculture. The AV has been developed by Robotics Plus to conduct an array of tasks within orchards and vineyards to help the sector deal with ongoing labor shortages.

The company’s team worked with growers, researchers and technology suppliers to provide the modular architecture for the multipurpose unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) which is capable of operating in a wide range of different environments.

The multipurpose UGV benefits from a combination of vision systems and other technologies which enable it to sense the surrounding environment. This allows the UGV to optimize tasks in addition to enabling intelligent and targeted application of inputs such as sprays. Multiple tools can be used on the adaptable and configurable agriculture platform, enabling jobs such as weed control, mulching, mowing and crop analysis to be carried out. Additionally, Robotics Plus’s vehicle can be supervised in a fleet of vehicles by a single human operator.

“We’ve created a flexible agricultural platform with the power to adapt to different crop types with tools for various applications, providing year-round automation benefits and maximizing machine utilization,” said Steven Saunders, co-founder and CEO, Robotics Plus. “To adapt and thrive in a changing world and create a sustainable and competitive future in the agricultural and specialty tree crop sector, growers and orchardists need automation that solves real-world problems, reduces reliance on increasingly costly and hard-to-find machine operators and provides data-driven insights for informed decision making.

“Our multipurpose vehicle replaces tractors and other tools. But it does much more than just replacing labor – it’s loaded with intelligence to improve efficiencies,” added Saunders.

To begin with, the technology is first being used for intelligent spraying. The system is capable of intelligently varying the flow rate to ensure spray efficiency whilst reducing inputs. Spray rates and airspeed is controlled in zones and responds as the sprayer moves along orchard or vineyard rows.

“Electric drive motors give superior torque and control, whilst a Tier 4 diesel generator means the vehicle can operate for extended periods,” explained Dr Alistair Scarfe, co-founder and CTO, Robotics Plus. “Fuel consumption is minimized by electrically driving all systems, including tools. Regenerative braking and high-capacity batteries also extend efficiency and range. In addition, the vehicle’s lightweight design and intelligent all-wheel-drive system, with independent wheel motors to ensure grip and control, significantly [reduce]ground compaction to protect the soil.”

Designed to be modular and easy to service, the UGV features no hydraulic, gearbox or differential fluids. This enables operators to simply replace components and modules when needed, reducing downtime.

To ensure the UGV meets the demanding use requirements of the agricultural sector, Robotics Plus partnered with a range of technology suppliers including Yamaha Motor Company, Autonomous Solutions and Croplands.

Saunders explained, “We’ve benefited from our partners’ deep knowledge and access to high-quality technology components. In addition, growers can deploy quantum sprayers with configurations adaptable to various crop types, growing formats and heights.”

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After spending six years working as a mechanic for various motorsport and high-end performance car companies, Callum joined UKi Media & Events in February 2020 as an assistant editor. In this role he uses his vast practical knowledge and passion for automotive to produce informative news pieces for multiple vehicle-related sectors. Currently, he is responsible for content across UKi Media & Events' portfolio of websites while also writing for the company's print titles.

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