Companies show a specialty in high-tech solutions

Bobcat AT450X electric autonomous tractor The AT450X autonomous and electric articulating tractor is able to navigate sloped terrain with attachments, following the ground contour. (Photo: Doosan Bobcat)

CES 2024, held in Las Vegas this past January, saw several major off-highway equipment suppliers unveil new machine and technology concepts. Interestingly, two of these suppliers chose to focus on the specialty crop industry, launching unique tools intended to ease specific pain points experienced by vineyards, orchards and similar farming operations.

The first out the gate was the Bobcat AT450X autonomous and electric articulating tractor enabled by Agtonomy, which was revealed to a packed room of media during the Doosan Group’s CES Media Days presentation the day prior to CES’ official opening. The next day, Kubota North America unveiled the New Agri Concept, its own electric and autonomous vehicle also targeted to specialty crop applications.

Bobcat AT450X articulating tractor

The AT450X, described as the industry’s first autonomous and electric articulating tractor, combines a traditional Bobcat articulating tractor with Agtonomy software and embedded-computing technology to support emissions-free and autonomous operation, Bobcat explained.

The unit is designed to autonomously or remotely carry out critical farm tasks in compact applications such as vineyards and orchards. Farmers can remotely direct the tractor to execute a range of tasks, including mowing, spraying, precision weeding, product and material transport and other labor-intensive activities, said Bobcat.

“Vineyards and a lot of specialty farms have a problem these days and the problem is a lack of labor. What that means is that the sustainability and the growth of those farms are very limited,” said Scott Park, CEO and vice chairman, Doosan Bobcat. “[The AT450X] is an autonomous, environmentally friendly machine that we can put into a vineyard to start with and then grow into other specialty crops to be autonomously working without the intervention of people – to be able to do the things that people need to do where we can’t actually get the people.

“So, at the end of the day, it’s really solving the problem of sustainable farming and it’s really solving a problem for our environmental health.”

Bobcat AT450X autonomous and electric articulating tractor

Fruitful collaboration

The AT450X is the product of a collaboration between Doosan Bobcat and California-based Agtonomy, a software and services company specializing in advanced autonomous and AI agriculture. The companies announced a partnership in early 2023 focused on advancing productivity in the agriculture industry through collaboration in the areas of electrification, autonomous operation and digital technology. In mid-2023, Bobcat took a step further and made a strategic investment in Agtonomy.

The AT450X is the first result of the companies’ relationship, a product Joel Honeyman, vice president of Global Innovation, Doosan Bobcat, said is “truly a software carrier” because of the amount of both technology and software built into the machine. “It’s a powerful combination for specialty farming and other types of applications,” he continued. “It’s connected, it’s electric and it’s autonomous, which means we can program it to tackle a wide range of tasks including mowing, spraying, weeding and other labor-intensive activities. This solution is really going to be a game changer in the agricultural industry.”

“By digitally transforming the equipment farmers know and trust, we can help them combat the daily challenges they face, such as labor constraints and the ever-increasing demand for sustainable farming practices in specialty crops,” said Tim Bucher, CEO and co-founder of Agtonomy. “The Bobcat AT450X with Agtonomy’s TeleFarmer technology makes the perfect end-to-end solution for agriculture and other industries, allowing both companies to make a positive impact and that is what it is all about.”

Bobcat AT450X mobile app To operate the tractor, users plot the machine’s mission path using Agtonomy’s mobile app. (Photo: Doosan Bobcat)

Because it produces zero emissions, the autonomous tractor can also be operated in food storage facilities and other enclosed farm structures, Bobcat added.

App-based operation

To operate the tractor, users plot the machine’s mission path using Agtonomy’s mobile app. They are able to plan, execute and monitor jobs running on any number of connected machines simultaneously.

The machine leverages artificial intelligence to continually learn and dynamically react to its environment. The machine is able to navigate sloped terrain with attachments, following the ground contour for professional results in one pass, Bobcat stated. Vision-based systems enable it to detect known and unknown objects in its path and auto-stop operation if needed.

The AT450X is capable of 24/7 operation thanks to the ability to self-replenish its energy source. When its battery is low, it returns to its home base, switches to a fully charged battery and places the drained battery back in its charging station.

Commercialization details for the AT450X will be announced at a later date, said Bobcat. In the meantime, the company is exploring other solutions across its portfolio to leverage Agtonomy’s technology.

Kubota debuts New Agri Concept

CES 2024 also saw Kubota Tractor Corp. unveil the New Agri Concept, a fully electric and autonomous multipurpose vehicle for specialty crop applications, a market with which the company is very familiar.

Kubota New Agri Concept One of the New Agri Concept’s most unique features vehicle’s is the ability to charge the battery from 10% to 80% in under six minutes. (Photo: KHL Staff)

“We have a lot of vehicles out in the specialty crop market right now… So, we’re building on the legacy and all the experience that we have in this market,” said Brett McMickells, senior technologist, Kubota North America. “We have a deep connection with our customer; now we’re using that knowledge to bring that technology to help them out.”

The objective of the New Agri Concept is to help solve challenges customers, particularly smaller farms, are facing, including labor shortages, how to harness AI data, managing water resources, profitability and more.

“On smaller farms, it’s about the sustainability of these farms. As labor costs go up, it’s becoming harder and harder for them to make a profit. So, there’s an acute problem that we need to solve,” McMickells said. “Automation will help. Automation combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and data… now you have the complete circle.”

Six-minute charging

The New Agri Concept features an advanced electric vehicle architecture designed to deliver power comparable to a 90-hp tractor, Kubota noted, but with zero emissions and quiet operation.

Kubota New Agri Concept The New Agri Concept features an advanced electric vehicle architecture designed to deliver power comparable to a 90-hp tractor. (Photo: KHL Staff)

The vehicle has six independent drive motors that enable maneuverability and tight turns, as well as independent hydraulics and PTO. But the vehicle’s most unique feature is the ability to charge the battery from 10% to 80% in under six minutes.

“We spent a lot of time on how to charge it because downtime is of course expensive and stressful, especially if you’re in a harvest situation,” McMickells said. He called the six-minute charge time a “huge relief” for operators, who can now take a quick break and return to a nearly fully charged vehicle.

“Of course, it’s not achieved in the standard wall socket because that would pull more energy. There’s a separate charger where you have to store up the energy in order to transfer that much power that fast,” he explained.

The vehicle can support standard charging, as well. “It depends on whether or not the grower finds value in the fast charging. Not all growers do,” McMickells noted. “If you have a smaller vineyard… and you can charge it overnight, we don’t want to force you into buying specialty equipment.”

Kubota New Agri Concept The standard three-point hitch enables use of many existing implements. (Photo: KHL Staff)

The standard three-point hitch enables use of many existing implements for common operations such as mowing and tilling. “We consciously decided to keep the same back with the three-point hitch and PTO because we don’t want to have a bar where the grower needs to get all new equipment in order to approach something like this,” McMickells said.

“This vehicle will support heritage implements. That’s really important to the growers; they don’t want to have to change everything,” he continued. “So, it’s about how do we introduce this technology so that it doesn’t compromise what growers are doing. That’s really at the heart of this design.”

Work in progress

Todd Stucke, president, Kubota Tractor Corp., SVP of Kubota North America, anticipates it will be a couple of years before the New Agri Concept moves to the production phase. “We have to perfect it, and once we perfect it, then find out what segment we go into,” he stated.

That includes learning how best to utilize the data it can collect. “All the sensors will collect data and what we really want to do is use AI and the data to give the customer, the grower, more information at their fingertips,” Stucke said. “How do we aggregate all the different data – weather, water, rainfall, spray, fertility, irrigation – into one system and use AI to make actionable recommendations?”

The design process remains ongoing. “The development has been cycling. This concept vehicle is not complete,” said McMickells. “We’re continually adding sensors, taking sensors away.”

As its development continues, the company will explore other ways in which to utilize the technologies being built into the vehicle. “Some of the [technology] could be retrofit on our current equipment. Once the base technology is there, how do we utilize it?” Stucke mused. “We’re not just looking at one thing; we’re looking at several things across the different product lines.”

Take autonomous technology as an example. According to Stucke, the vision is to apply the autonomous system used in the New Agri Concept to the turf, row crop and other segments.

“It’s not just agriculture. As you’re looking at the autonomy and electric drives, that transfers over into construction equipment. So, we’re looking across all the platforms,” said McMickells.

“This concept is looking at changing the architecture and what we’re learning here can be applied to the rest of our portfolio,” he continued. “Maybe not in this exact way, but definitely the lessons.”

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