Automated machines in landscaping | The Landscaper Magazine
The age of automated machines in landscaping is near, Greg Rhodes discovers, but there are some hurdles to overcome before we can go hands-free with no risk or worry
On the sprawling acres of Harper Adams University, automated machines are building Britain’s first arable crop remotely, with no operators in the driver’s seat or agronomists on site.
In agriculture, the future is ringing loud and clear, because manufacturers and suppliers are calling for the latest mechatronics and robot technology to be used.
The university continually attracts industry applicants willing to fundraise, donate equipment, and support research into how machines can do without drivers and operators. The dynamism of change is so great that its application in sports and leisure is certainly a formality.
Yes, we already have robotic mowers, but here we are talking about a wholesale technology transfer that includes tractors, sprayers, various lawn machines and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Through its “Hands Free Farm”, “Hands Free Hectare” and “National Center for Precision Farming” initiatives, the university has become a pioneer on the way to remote-controlled and automated technology and works closely with partners to create the world of tomorrow on the way.
Mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill, who has a B.Eng in robotics and automated systems and is a UAV pilot, has just ended a hectic week harvesting this year’s crop.
He’s pretty sure about the future, and big isn’t necessarily beautiful. “Smaller vehicles are less demanding and safer in terms of design,” he says, a judgment that can be traced back to extensive practical experience in this area.
With this technology, agriculture “doesn’t scale,” he adds, believing the same will apply to sports and leisure. He thinks of multiples of smaller units rather than fewer, larger ones.
Kit tested at Harper Adams could find utility in community care. Syngenta and other partners tested a hyperweeding system to selectively identify and irradiate weeds within a crop using “hyperspectral imaging, destructive tracking lasers and precision syringes.”
The task of the Synergy project was to investigate, develop and evaluate a framework for the “platooning of closely spaced autonomous vehicles”.
Autonomous compact tractors
Iseki will start working at Harper Adams to explore the use of their autonomous small tractors (up to 48 hp) for terrain maintenance – “for example on golf and soccer fields,” says Jonathan after the successful work in the university’s agriculture setting last four years.
Such driverless vehicles currently have the “resilience” of an operator who monitors their activity within sight, he explains.
“Tractors with an output between 90 and 300 hp are used in standard farming, “he continues,” but several smaller machines cause less compaction [a factor vital in sportsturf maintenance] and are easier to automate. “
Precision spraying is critical not only when caring for plants, but also when applying treatment fluids to sports floors, recreational facilities, and aquatic environments.
Remote spraying with the help of Amazone
The Amazone unit in use at Harper Adams is one of the first machines to carry out remote-controlled spraying, reveals Jonathon. For security reasons, however, he leaves nothing to chance. “I am PA2-certified so that I can guarantee safe use in all cases and am always close by when the syringe is in use.
“It is smart enough to only spray within a preset limit and the dosing quantities are only set to the boom width, although there is individual nozzle control. The sprayer could certainly also be used on sports fields together with the right tractor. “
In collaboration with autonomous spraying systems on their autonomous spraying robot R150, the university tested the electric vehicle in March during one of the wettest weeks of the year on their hands-free acre field.
“The spray tank was filled with 100 liters of liquid, fresh batteries were inserted and a 3 m wide spray pattern was fully programmed, ”explains the company.
“The soil type is “Soilscape 18” and is described as slowly permeable, seasonally moist, slightly acidic, rich loamy, clayey soil, “it said. A conventional tractor could not have been used because it would have caused too much damage. With a full load of just 300 kg, the R150 “hardly left any marks”, and the steering was not shaken by the slippery surface, the company added.
The McConnel Schlegel has also proven itself and controls weed growth on the university campus, as the manufacturer supplied a device for long-term assessment, says Jonathan.
Remote controlled machines
One of the main limitations in the development of automated and remote controlled machines and devices is to develop a system that is guaranteed to stop if it encounters an obstacle such as a human.
“Hopefully the solution is only a few years away, ”says Jonathan, because only when machines have this intrinsic safety can they be released in public where people are walking on a footpath across a golf course or parkland.
Since 2017, the center has also focused on the operation, design and programming of drones and the associated control systems and their role in agriculture.
Drones with their “massive potential for sowing and spraying in agriculture”, says Jonathan, will quickly attract sharp looks as a ready-made method for material and liquid application in sport and leisure.
A two day demonstration of 26 kg drones on www.cerealsevent.co.uk a great success in June, he reports, but there is a catch. “We would like to work with them to the best of our ability, but according to the HSE regulations of the Chemicals Regulation Division, no drone is allowed to deliver any active substance, regardless of the industry,” says Jonathan. He lobbied MPs and the government in hopes of changing these rules, he added, but that was still work.
However, years of testing hands-free systems have shown him one thing. “The age of automation is coming.” And fast, it seems.