Robot seeder heralds a new era

A photo of a tractor hauling a seeding system

A robotic (driverless) tractor and the world’s first
autonomous seeding system, both designed by
Associate Professor Jay Katupitiya and his team at
the University of New South Wales.

A groundbreaking autonomous seeding implement has been developed by the University of New South Wales
 

Have you ever dreamt of being able to leave the tractor and seeder working in the paddock while you have a good night’s sleep? Well, with support from the GRDC, a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have brought that dream a step closer to reality.

They have developed the world’s first automatic seeding system pulled by an autonomous (driverless) tractor.

“Our main objective was to reduce the size of the tractor unit so soil compaction is minimised and the constraints of controlled-traffic systems are eliminated by driving on the inter-row,” says Associate Professor Jay Katupitiya, who led the development team at the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.

The ‘pilot’ for the automatic seeder is an 18-horsepower John Deere 4210. However, it is not your average tractor. This one is fitted with a suite of advanced control systems run by a constellation of software modules, enabling it to follow a predetermined path. This path can include navigating to and from the paddock without assistance.

The pilot is equipped with two onboard GPS systems that can determine the position of the tractor to within plus or minus one centimetre when 11 satellites are visible and to within plus or minus 2cm the majority of the time. These GPS systems and other sensors monitor forwards, backwards and sideways movement as well as tilt.

In addition, the pilot is able to direct the powered, steerable wheels on the seeding implement and to adjust the lateral and depth alignment of the tynes for even higher seed placement accuracy. The drive power for the seeder’s wheels is derived by sensing the tension between the pilot and the seeder – currently set at 20 kilograms of force.

The team experimented with several systems to achieve the accurate control of the seeding implement and with the GRDC have patented the system that has been developed.

Using more mathematical calculations than most of us would care to complete in a lifetime, the pilot tractor is able to direct the implement and tynes to follow the intended path with an accuracy of plus or minus 2cm.

Unlike current commercial systems designed to minimise implement slip, the UNSW seeder is not fitted with a separate GPS guidance unit but responds instead to commands.

The seeder has hydraulically propelled wheels, powered from a power pack located between the pilot and the implement. This arrangement enables weight to be more evenly distributed to minimise soil compaction.

The level of implement precision achieved may seem excessive for current farming practices. However, ensuring precise seed placement is going to underpin the application of all autonomous broadacre activities. Knowing exactly where each row was sown eliminates the need to sense the row during each subsequent in-paddock operation.

The GRDC is now seeking commercial partners. It may take several years before the autonomous seeding system is commercialised, and Associate Professor Katupitiya anticipates the first commercialised system would consist of a small pilot and implement working on a width of three metres.

More information:

Associate Professor Jay Katupitiya,
02 9385 4096,
j.katupitiya@unsw.edu.au

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GRDC Project Code UNS00002

Region South, North