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[Source: INEDA, 01.2016 | Keywords: Construction, Agriculture, Innovations]

Automation. This buzz word resonates with farmers and contractors struggling to find ways to keep labor costs down. Could autonomous vehicles and robots be the answer?

The global robotics industry is expected to grow from $23.8 billion worldwide in 2015 to $151.7 billion by 2020, according to market intelligence firm Tractica. The firm predicts that most of this growth will be driven by non-industrial robots.

Non-industrial markets like autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and consumer robots have been experiencing rapid growth and this growth has started to make its way into the ag and construction equipment industries, with the introduction of an autonomous tractor, remote controlled skid steers, a weed stamping robot and more. Here’s a look at some innovative equipment introduced last year.

Caterpillar Launches Remote Control System

RemoteTask – a remote control system for Cat® D Series skid steers, compact track and multi-terrain loaders – allows operators to precisely control these machines from up to 1,000 ft. outside the cab using a “belly box” control system, keeping the operator at a safe distance from potentially hazardous tasks and environments.

According to Caterpillar, the RemoteTask system, developed with autonomous vehicle provider TORC Robotics, features virtually no lag in machine response time. “When I use the RemoteTask controller, the machine response is instantaneous,” said Bob Shoop, Cat product demonstrator/instructor. “The feel and response mirrors the operator controls of the machine itself.”

The remote system can be integrated into 16 models of Cat D Series skid steers and loaders and control more than 200 work tools utilizing all-hydraulic functions. It takes about an hour for a Cat dealer to install the RemoteTask system into a machine. Once installed, the machine can transition from manual to remote mode at the turn of a key switch.

Look for the RemoteTask system to hit the North American market in early 2016.

Drone-Powered Automated Equipment Service

In early 2015, Komatsu started a new service called Smart Construction. Smart Construction pairs Skycatch drones with Komatsu machines equipped with intelligent Machine Control (iMC) technology. While iMC currently offers operators semi-automatic control on a range of dozers and at least one excavator, Smart Construction seeks to remove the operator almost completely from the equation.

Using the drones, Smart Construction performs an initial terrain survey which is then compiled into 3D data. This data is sent to iMC equipped machines wirelessly, giving the machines all the information they need to accurately prepare the site. According to Komatsu, a typical terrain survey can be completed in as little as 30 minutes up to one day.

Smart Construction currently leases the machines and drones to customers and handles their
operation. Komatsu first launched this service in Japan due to its severe shortage of construction workers, especially since Japan is in the middle of several stadium construction projects as the country readies to host the 2020 Olympics. The service is currently only available in Japan.

Driverless Machine Greenbot Makes Its Debut

Dutch Power Company recently introduced Greenbot – the first driverless machine – to the ag industry. Two prototypes have been built and are currently being tested.

Greenbot, which has a variety of modes, uses GPS signal correction using real-time kinematic (RTK). When in Teach-and-Playback mode, the machine is programmed to repeat instructions. Another mode allows the operator to drive the perimeter of a field, and the machine does the path planning to optimize the task at hand. The price for Greenbot starts at $128,000.

Dutch Power Company also offers an XPert kit to make Fendt tractors autonomous. “There is a lot of interest in Australia,” said Vincent Achten, mechatronics director at Precision Makers, the company in charge of distributing and servicing the machines. “We sold one system there and it has been running for quite a few months now spot spraying. I think there’s a market for at least 50 of these machines over the next two years in Australia.”

Gauging by the interest the company has seen from U.S. farmers, it may not be long before the Greenbot is deployed in American farm fields. “I think the U.S. farmers realize the benefits of this technology, especially when they see it being used in Europe and Australia,” said Achten. However, he admits there are obstacles to overcome, including liability and establishing a dealer network.

Driverless Tractor Getting Closer to Farms

Autonomous Tractor Company has developed a diesel-electric powertrain replacement package called eDrive, which turns current tractors into a diesel-electric hybrid. Powertrain is the enabling technology behind giving tractors autonomous control. The company announced the first sale of eDrive last September.

In 2012, Autonomous Tractor Company also designed Spirit, a prototype tractor that the company says is the first truly autonomous farm tractor. The tractor features laser radio positioning, artificial intelligence, cameras and sonar technology.

“The most significant thing we’ve done is come up with a way to replace the driver,” said Terry Anderson, Autonomous Tractor Corporation vice president, during a televised interview in November. “You simply take the tractor out to the field and train it just like a hired hand. You don’t have any programming to do.”

Will Robots Replace Herbicides on the Farm?

Weed control today is hardly perfect. Hand-weeding is tedious. Chemical control is costly and can succumb to resistant weeds over time. German engineers at Deepfield Robotics have designed a functional robot prototype to simplify the weeding process. It features a camera and sensors that are trained to identify small weeds, with a rod that stamps the weeds underground. So far, the bot can punch out 120 weeds per minute with 80 percent accuracy.

The robot, about the size of a compact car, is relatively small by design, according to Deepfield Robotics. In addition, the process takes quite a bit of calculus and computing to work, and researchers still have some technological challenges to overcome. Additional testing is planned for 2016.