The Rise of the Machines

 It seems today that there’s an App for pretty much everything, technology is allegedly making life easier and giving us more free time to enjoy ourselves. Robotics are also making their presence felt, most notably in manufacturing where they have been building cars and picking parts for many years. Now they are making their presence felt in agriculture and potentially scuttling onto a playing field near you.

Robotic milking and vegetable packing plants have been used to tackle the more mundane tasks in agriculture for several years, but significant developments are now moving us towards driverless tractors that use GPS technology to guide them around fields for simple operations such as grain collection. This is not a new development; a simple mechanical guidance system was developed in the States about 100 years ago.  Since then there have been several attempts at using guide wheels, buried wires, radio control, CCTV cameras and GPS but so far nothing commercially viable – a case of “Sure it’s automatic, but I’ve still got to be here”. Realistically these type of systems are only suitable in controlled environments such as large fields or row crops and under the watchful eye of a human operator, be it the combine driver controlling a fleet of tractors and trailers collecting grain, or from a control vehicle at the edge of the field controlling machines on predetermined tramlines within the crop.

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Coming to a field near you, the next generation of driverless tractor

This may work on a 100Ha field, but is not so practical in a park with a multitude of obstacles, some of which bite back.  In our industry, the driverless tractor or mower is still a long way off, but the robot is here and very much at home keeping the grass short in a variety of environments. Husqvarna, Etesia, John Deere and a host of other manufacturers make robotic mowers for the consumer market which can be left to get on with cutting the grass using solar power or returning to a docking station to recharge. These clever machines work very well in controlled environments such as sports grounds or large gardens where a control perimeter can be put in place; in fact the Yorkshire Sculpture Park uses one to cut the grass roof on one of their galleries. Football grounds are the ideal venue for a robotic to show off its skills. Forest Green Rovers is one of 350 clubs across Europe that uses a robot to maintain their pitch, where light footprint and floating heads allow it to operate in conditions unsuitable for conventional methods. When it’s finished it just parks up and recharges itself ready for the next round. In the States, some golf courses have been invaded by strange turreted machines moving around the complex cutting the greens on a predetermined route controlled by GPS and a computer in the green keeper’s office.

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“I Robot”

So the robots are amongst us, but do they have future in our industry? Personally I hope not as we are very much a people business and whilst technology and automation can make us more efficient, we will always need the human touch. There is no doubt that in certain circumstances the robotic or remotely controlled mower has a major safety advantage over the human.  Examples such as working on slopes, high speed roads, waterways and railways or where the nature of the operation is regular, repetitive and can be controlled, for instance the maintenance of row crops such as tree stock. Looking at the latest range of remote control power units you do have to wonder if the machine is starting to control us and the way we think; 140hp with front and rear linkage at £70k plus, the Terminator has arrived!

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Remote control mowing with attitude!

 

Angus Lindsay

Group Head of Assets and Fleet

Angus Lindsay

 

Angus writes a monthly column for Pro Landscaper Magazine http://prolandscapermagazine.com/