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Robot Tractors!

May 11, 2017

Guest Post by Dave Ward



Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the Eastern Daily Press, one of the Archant publishing group’s longest serving titles. It proudly claims to be the country’s largest circulation regional daily newspaper. However, I was told many years ago that it also happens to be the country’s ONLY regional daily newspaper – but never let a good selling point get in the way! Produced and printed in the city of Norwich, home to the UEA, it regularly features press releases from that famous institution, and also from the burgeoning “renewable” industry in the region. However they rarely question any such information provided – that is left to a handful of readers (like me) who take the time to write in. Even when we do, it’s almost a given that submissions will be edited (ostensibly to fit the limited space available), but also in subtle ways which alter the meaning. Despite numerous complaints about poor reporting standards they continue to trot out stuff like this:





Imagine a farm where driverless electric tractors roam the fields, day and night, before silently connecting themselves to solar-powered charging points ready for their next autonomous shift.”

Who on earth penned that! I’m not a farmer, but I’ve spent much of my time around small farms and do some work for one of them, so it’s immediately obvious that the writer hasn’t the faintest idea of the realities involved.


How do they “roam” day AND night, if relying on Solar Power? Certainly not with the capability of the John Deere SESAM prototype – 4 hours (max) use, followed by 3 hours charging. Look at any graph of solar output versus the time of day and the pronounced peak around midday is obvious. This would give the fastest charge times, but by late afternoon the battery would be flat, and solar output rapidly falling. It would (probably) be fully charged by mid-morning the next day, but then you would miss the peak charge opportunity whilst using it. Do they expect farmers to have several (very expensive) machines sitting around, charging when they can, just to get a semblance of normal diesel fuelled usage? And where are these solar panels going to be installed – not the fields being worked in, that’s for sure. The power requirements will be huge, and for Mr Fairman to compare them with robot vacuum cleaners or lawn mowers (both of which are considerably less powerful than their mains operated cousins) is disingenuous, to say the least.

With the demands of modern “just in time” harvesting & production, farmers have to be prepared to work from dawn to dusk (or even longer) during busy periods. To keep a conventional tractor (or combine) running all that’s needed is a fuel bowser, which can usually be towed to the site behind the 4×4 which the operator often travels in anyway. With the present state of battery technology the idea that fleets of tractors will be charging from solar panels is absurd. We are not talking about a 30 mile daily commute to work in a car. If, however, they make use of mains power it becomes (slightly) more sensible, but the “Eco” credentials go out the window. This approach would still require considerable investment – whilst 11kV power lines are never far from rural fields, voltage reduction transformers and charging equipment would be needed at frequent intervals. I’m willing to bet that large scale deployment of electrically powered farm machinery would put a strain on those local networks, as well. And surely they won’t be expected to supplement the grid, as is being talked about with cars? Can you imagine a farmer having to phone Birds Eye and explain that he can’t harvest their peas because the sun didn’t shine and/or the wind didn’t blow meaning his electric tractor battery is flat…

Electric tractors are not “silent” either – watch this promotional video and listen to it moving off at time 2:14. Now consider how happy you would be with several of them working nearby at 3:00am! There seems to be some discrepancy over the power output and range. The quote says “130kW of continuous power” – which would agree with “174hp” in this picture from the National Farmers Union (NFU):




Unfortunately, in the video an on-board information display shows two bar graphs of only 50kW each:




My basic maths makes that a total of 100kW, NOT 130 – which equates to 134hp. I’m unsure why each bar has a negative scale, but as there is a “Cooling” light below, it may indicate when battery power is being used for cooling? Furthermore, 100kW divided by 150kWhrs (if this is what the RHD display really means) equates to just 1½ hours at full power (or just over an hour for 130kW).

4 hours worth of operation means just 37.5kW / 50hp, and it won’t be pulling a 6 furrow plough on that. I appreciate full power is not always needed, but a conventional diesel fuelled machine can deliver it for as long as the tank will allow (and can then be re-fuelled in a matter of minutes). There may be limited opportunity for regenerative braking if towing on the road, but certainly not when working in fields. I can’t find fuel consumption figures in the publications for John Deere’s conventional range – rather odd considering it must be an important factor for the farmer. So without comparing similar engines fitted in other vehicles it is difficult to work out relative hourly operating costs – maybe that’s intentional?

There is also some ambiguity over where, in the existing range, this prototype fits in. According to that picture it is based on a 6 series chassis, and with 100kW, is comparable to the 6135M, for instance. This model has a 265 litre / 58 gallon fuel tank, which should give rather more than 4 hours endurance, I suspect! And yet in another video it sports a “7830” label, which doesn’t appear in the current JD brochure, but the “7” series range covers 210 to 310hp. The German text in the second clip mentions “400PS” (1PS = 0.986 horsepower), but which ever way you look at it a 100kW machine is not in the same ballpark. Pure electric cars may have startling acceleration, compared to similar petrol or diesel models, but they don’t do the sort of work a large tractor is expected to. The high starting torque available from electric drive systems might be beneficial in getting a multi-furrow plough started in a clay field, but sustained power after that is needed to get to the other end, and to do it over and over all day…

The proponents of electric vehicles constantly bang on about “revolutionary” advances in battery technology being “just around the corner” but similar claims have been made about other things in the past. Until they can offer the same energy density as conventional fuels the idea that we can simply replace I/C engines is pie in the sky, even disregarding where the extra electricity is supposed to come from.




There was a further section in the EDP article:




I suppose smaller autonomous battery powered agricultural vehicles, such as crop sprayers, might have a reasonable chance of success, as they don’t have to drag ploughs and heavy trailers around. Being able to operate at night also gives a better chance of applying their payload accurately, when winds are often lighter. But the NFU suggestion that technology could help farmers post-Brexit is rather wide of the mark, if John Deere are anything to go by. The company have been getting a lot of negative publicity lately regarding their policy of denying owners of their machinery access to technical information and diagnostic equipment. At least a conventional machine can be worked on (with pirated software), but what chance would even the most enterprising farm mechanic have with a fully electric machine? And the sight of a 750 volt battery sitting there with the connectors apparently covered in little more than some plastic film ought to ring alarm bells…

On the other hand, there may be the possibility for someone to “hack” an electric tractor and give it a Tesla style “Ludicrous” mode. The mind boggles…

  1. Skeptik permalink
    May 11, 2017 6:09 pm

    It’s a $10 solution to a $5 problem. Many farmers current achieve much of the benefit of autonomy on current ICE powered equipment. During the compressed harvest period, farmers are known to enter the appropriate GPS coordinates, put a seed bag on the driver’s seat to defeat the weight detectors and let the equipment run overnight autonomously, scaling their limited experienced labor pool without any additional capital required.

  2. Joe Public permalink
    May 11, 2017 6:53 pm

    If only someone would build a local straw-burning power station, then Norfolk & Suffolk farmers would grow lots of straw, and harvest it with a fleet of these …….

    • Dave Ward permalink
      May 11, 2017 8:19 pm

      “Blade motor 60 W 2600 rpm”

      I’d like to see it try and cut straw with that piddling output – a middle-of-the-range DIY cordless drill is more powerful!

      I notice it’s “Paired to individual charging station” for “Security” reasons. How many opportunist thieves would be aware of that? They’ll pinch it anyway, then discard it when the battery runs flat, so the original owner won’t gain anything. To an old cynic like me it sounds like more of JD’s control freakery…

  3. A C Osborn permalink
    May 11, 2017 6:57 pm

    The usual “blue sky” thinking, fixing a non existent problem.
    There is nothing wrong with modern tractors at all.

    • Tim Hammond permalink
      May 12, 2017 8:16 am

      That’s not really true. They need a driver, who costs money, and two or three if you want to use the asset 24 hours a day. Humans are also poor drivers compared with computer-controlled vehicles, as modern mines have shown. Solar charged electric may not be the way to go, but automated almost certainly is – three or four farms could share vehicles if they can work continuously without supervision, thus reducing costs considerably.

      • Frank Everest permalink
        May 12, 2017 3:36 pm

        Yes, and they can plough straighter than a driver can, and do it all night, too, if need be. There are definitely plusses to driverless vehicles on farms becasu they don’t have to interact with other vehicles at 70mph like cars!

  4. AJ Astley permalink
    May 11, 2017 6:59 pm

    Two points – our local regional daily newspapar “Shropshire Star” (first point, not alone in this country!) has an item tonight, 11th May, about students at Harper Adams (agricultural) University who’ve developed an autonomous tractor which has prepared, fertilised, and sown a hectare, sorry about two acres, of land. And will harvest the barley in due course.

    Regards Ant

  5. May 11, 2017 7:17 pm

    Paul said ” ONLY regional daily newspaper ”
    what about Yorkshire Post, Shropshire Star ?
    And most people would say newspapers with bigger circulations than EDP are regional
    EDP seem to excluding newspapers based around nationality or a city.

    I’d say the West Midlands based Express & Star circn 55,373 is a regional newspaper
    EDP sits 7 places lower in the circulation tableat 34,438
    Yorkshire Post, Shropshire Star have about 26,000 each

    See the SECOND table on this page

    • May 11, 2017 7:30 pm

      Express & Star is 6 days/week
      York P is 6 days/week
      Shropshire Star 3 days /week

      I don’t think EDP have a Sunday edition
      but they seem to have a special claim that within their own region they are the most popular daily paper, outselling the Sun.

      • AJ Astley permalink
        May 11, 2017 7:57 pm

        The “Shropshire Star” is delivered to our door six days a week…

        Regards Ant

      • Dave Ward permalink
        May 11, 2017 7:58 pm

        @stewgreen – It’s my post, not Pauls, and I must apologise for not getting the “regional newspaper” bit right. Emblazoned across the front page it actually says “The Country’s Best Selling Regional Morning Paper” I don’t know if that makes any difference? I imagine they would have been challenged about this if wrong. Are the titles you mentioned distributed later in the day?

      • May 11, 2017 9:21 pm

        Dave, I was only only skimming when I spotted that error.
        Yes they seem to have done the normal LibMob cherrypicking trick ..Yes there are 7 non national papers which sell more but it probably is the case that they are published throughout the day or city based. or evenings only.

      • Hick From The Sticks permalink
        May 12, 2017 8:23 am

        Isn’t the London Evening News by far the biggest circulation regional newspaper?

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      May 12, 2017 3:39 am

      In the 1960s, a beer sold in Cincinnati (Ohio) claimed in its ads it was the largest selling beer in Cincy. Another brewery claimed it was the largest selling Cincy beer.
      Both were correct.
      The first one was brewed across the Ohio River — in Kentucky.

  6. May 11, 2017 7:21 pm

    Lincoln Unis Thorval robot tractor was covered a couple of weeks ago on BBC and FT

  7. permalink
    May 11, 2017 7:49 pm

    my daughter today was contacted today by british gas saying that smart meters will be mandatory by 2020. She lives in her own flat and is 23, surely this is scare tactics targetting young people. I applaud your stance on climate change, and and the green crap. I am 66 and can honestly say that the weather has never changed in my life time its always had its up side downs. Keep up the good work

    • Gerry, England permalink
      May 12, 2017 12:55 pm

      They are lying and she should tell them so before switching to another supplier. While we are cynics here and most of us can see how once they get installation beyond a certain level they will try to make them mandatory. However, until such time ever comes the plan is that everyone should be offered a ‘smart’ meter by 2020. With luck most people will refuse.

  8. AZ1971 permalink
    May 11, 2017 8:26 pm

    Being able to operate at night also gives a better chance of applying their payload accurately, when winds are often lighter.

    This flies in the face of everything the green lobby has been pushing for years—sunlight (solar) during the day, wind at night. But even so, I can’t imagine there being a financial incentive to utilizing the technology for farm operations, given what commodity prices are.

    • Ben Vorlich permalink
      May 12, 2017 6:38 am

      Surely the harvest of crops is driven by two things, when the crop needs to be harvested and when the weather is good for harvest. Harvesting grain in the rain isn’t that common. and things like peas have a short window. Root crops are not so problematic but harvesting from muddy fields tends to be avoided.

      There has been a trend to bigger and bigger agricultural machinery over the years and at harvest running 24 hours a day is normal due to the two reasons above. Getting in first for high prices is also a driver, things haven’t changed since the days of the tea clippers

  9. spetzer86 permalink
    May 11, 2017 8:40 pm

    Tractor fuel consumption data, if you’re still interested: Just need to pick the various model numbers.

  10. May 11, 2017 9:24 pm

    Tractors, pah!

    Norway to build first self-sailing electric cargo ship

    Running mostly on hydro-electric power, they say.

  11. May 12, 2017 12:37 am

    Depends on the size of the farm. 25,000 acre wheat fields could use something like that.

  12. tempestnut permalink
    May 12, 2017 6:28 am

    Real world Tractor fuel ecconmy is very variable, a farmer pottering around his farm will burn very little per hour, but a big tractor ploughing a field will use 20 to 25 gallons per hour, and some of the bigger tractors a contractor would use to get the job done faster could burn 30 or more per hour. If you want a base figure to work out ball park comparisons you could do worse than use 200 grams of diesel per kilowatt per hour.

  13. dennisambler permalink
    May 12, 2017 7:33 am

    This tractor would seem to be an ideal machine for a solar farm……

  14. Hereburgher permalink
    May 12, 2017 8:24 am

    “With the demands of modern “just in time” harvesting & production…”

    The vast majority of our crops are still on an annual cycle – ‘just in time’ really doesn’t apply to a barnload of cereal, whilst predicting crop development (weather?) and matching capricious consumer demand (wet fortnight followed by barbecue weekend?) makes this extremely difficult even for shorter cycle crops such as lettuce.

  15. May 12, 2017 10:25 am

    Be gentle with them Paul for they know not what they do. They did say “Imagine…” which is the only way it is conceivable – reality has nothing to do with ‘renewables’ or climate ‘science’.
    Love dennisambler’s observation about the perfect tractor for a solar farm!

  16. ROM permalink
    May 12, 2017 11:03 am

    Ah yes!
    Auto guided and robotic tractors and harvesters and etc.
    That piece of tree limb about 5 centimeters thick that blew 50 metres into the crop field and gets jammed in the front / header leaving a two metre wide strip of flattened unharvested grain or more right across the field on every one of the combine’s runs across the field during the day / night of robotic operation.
    The slave labour drags the diesel tanker into the field and then cuts and runs to catch up with another urgent task and the auto guidance / robotic machine isn’t programmed to pick up items like fuel tankers stuck somewhere way out in middle of the field.
    Or items such as half a very annoyed, very angry even snake gets the run around in the crop reel causing all sorts of blockages of the inflowing crop to develop and the robotic combine briskly marches and munches its robotic way through regardless.
    a Kangaroo/ wallaby leaps out from under a dense crop and disappears under the header feed auger and out of sight up the elevator to the thresher.
    Not pretty at all and it clogs the separating sieves in the back of the harvester so all that gathered and threshed grain just goes right on through to seed a two metres wide strip with a 50 mm thick layer of grain all so magnificently and robotically and accurately deposited back into the field.
    a bearing or belt begins to fail and the flames begin to glow deep down in the inners of the machine, no smell or human sensory system telling an operator that something very subtle and mightly suspicious is going on and it might be best to take a short look around the machine.
    So another magnificent robotically operated machine goes back to its basic elements of hot steel and a neighbourly gathering develops to try and put the fire out before it wipes every body in the district out.

    Or seeding
    A mud ball begins amongst the sowing tines when a uncharted wet spot allied with straw from the GPS guided sowing between last years rows of harvested crop [ stubble retention ] begins a huge mudball around a number of sowing tines and hours later you have five metre wide unsown strips right across the field all so neatly robotically and accurately located and unsown.

    Or spraying
    And those damn jets on the outer 10 metres of the robotically operated self propelled boom spray didn’t work at all during the whole night because their electrical connection clip on the diaphragm switch came off and so the jets never switched on.
    Pity as another 200 hectares will have to be resprayed with only the ten metre wide set of jets operating to cover the robotically created unsprayed strip from the previous pass. Damn , and we would have got the lot finished before that forecast rain system began to come in and bogged us down for another week.

    and it is 2am and you are sound asleep content that your million dollar robotic machine is doing its thing across your farm and the damn sensor goes off again!
    wearily you haul yourself out to reset the sends and the hell with it, you isolate that sensor so it won’t get so bloody voluble again and back to bed you go.
    And wake up to much crashing to see you million dollar machine in flames or wrecked.
    That sensor for the first time in its entire career of spurious alarms was fair dinkum this time.

    Marvellous things are robotics.
    If it shakes, rattles and rolls, it doesn’t matter what the machine is or what colour it is or who made it and what it is made off and how and who programmed it, it will break!

    And guess who pays?
    It won’t be the John Deeres of this world thats for sure.

  17. Gerry, England permalink
    May 12, 2017 1:04 pm

    There’s different grades of peas. The top grade peas must get to the processor and be frozen within two and a half hours of being picked. And when ripe it will be a 24 hour operation to harvest them – no time to wait for a battery to charge. Leaving aside the mentioned power output problems, the only way for electric vehicles to work is to be able to change the battery just as you do an AA or AAA in your torch etc. If you use rechargeable batteries you slip in your second charged set while putting the others on charge.

  18. Macha permalink
    May 13, 2017 11:47 pm

    Australian farmers use tractors that are virtually robotic (Gps) already…just run on diesel. So if the argument is just about labour reduction, its already available. Thta said, there’s a lot of other scenarios that need to be accounted for.. As stated above.

  19. Philip N Butterfield permalink
    May 20, 2017 10:07 am

    What you have to understand in 2017 is that professional writers are employed to write articles on subjects they know absolutely nothing about. How do I know? My son in law is one and he wrote an article on changing valves in a car engine and he would not have a clue even how to check the oil in his car, let alone change the valves. So, take with a pinch of salt a good amount of what you read on subjects. It’s blind leading the blind who have read an article written by the blind !!

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