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In Focus: Farming 4.0

ZF is applying the benefits of technological future trends such as e-mobility and autonomous driving to innovative agricultural vehicle prototypes.

Text: Lars Weitbrecht , 07. December, 2017

Lars Weitbrecht originally comes from the music and gaming industry, but in addition to holding a game pad or guitar in his hand, he also enjoys the power of the pen and the feel of the steering wheel.

Imagine that it’s harvesting time but the farmer doesn’t gather the crops. This is a scenario that could soon be a reality on farms around the world. Together with the Austrian agricultural machinery manufacturer Lindner, ZF has developed a semi-autonomous concept tractor that can take over this job.

“Our prototype shows how the agricultural sector can benefit from the automotive megatrends of connectivity, artificial intelligence, and automation,” says Mark Mohr, head of the Automated Operations project center at ZF. The experimental vehicle is based on the Lindner Lintrac 90, a compact tractor that ZF equipped with a range of intelligent mechanical systems. Thanks to the combination of cameras with lidar and radar sensors, whose signals are processed by the ZF Pro AI control platform that is capable of deep learning, this tractor now has a 360-degree, all-round view with person recognition, which is also connected to the driveline controller.

An additional GPS system connected to the steering and hydraulic system as well as the TMT09 continuously variable transmission from ZF make it possible to automate processes in the agricultural sector – processes that can even be activated via an app. The technology contained in this concept tractor opens the door to many innovative features.

The Lindner Lintrac 90 has a 360-degree, all-round view with person recognition, which is also connected to the driveline controller.

A tractor capable of learning

One such possibility is process optimization, for example: an assistance system detects cutting edges, field borders, and swath – i.e. the rows of fallen crops – and automatically keeps the tractor on track. This makes the system and the process more efficient and easier for the driver. And the ride itself is safer thanks to the system’s aforementioned all-round view in the tractor. The farmer can still see what’s going on around the vehicle through the tractor’s large windows, but can also easily follow along using a practical tablet PC in the driver cabin. While working out on the field, the tractor “learns” the route taken and stores it for later use. This means that after completing its first tour, the tractor can work the field automatically, without even needing a driver. Thanks to person and object detection, the system constantly monitors safety as it moves through its surroundings.

Who might be interested in intelligent tractors like this prototype? “This technology will particularly make work easier for farming operations with large farmlands, such as those found in North and South America, for example,” says Mr. Mohr. Farms in the United States have cropland that stretches over 430 acres on average, while the average farm in Europe has less than 30 acres. And the time and labor cost savings are even higher on megafarms like those often found in Russia, Brazil, and the US. But even smaller farms can benefit from the concept tractor’s features, however. One that is particularly practical is the “Follow me” feature. With this activated, the tractor autonomously follows another tractor driving ahead of it. If both vehicles are equipped with different tools, this can be used to save time by completing two different steps while traveling the route only once, for example.

“Follow me”: the intelligent tractor automatically follows the tractor ahead of it.

Plowing with electric assistance

And yet there are also other approaches to increasing the efficiency of field work, reducing fuel consumption, and operating in a more environmentally friendly manner. For example, ZF integrated its eTRAC close-to-the-wheel electric drive system into a plow. The generator module TERRA+, which was also developed by ZF, powers the e-drive unit. The result is additional traction, which makes it easier to work in difficult conditions, such as when the ground is soft. The additional power provided by eTRAC also means that a tractor with a smaller engine can still pull a larger plow – which is good for the soil. After all, the soil being compacted by increasingly heavier equipment is a widespread problem for farmers.

The eTRAC electric drive unit integrated into a plow makes field work easier.

In a nutshell: You reap what you sow. Together with the Austrian agricultural machinery manufacturer Lindner, ZF has developed a concept tractor that guides itself along cut edges, follows preprogrammed routes autonomously and – using person and object recognition – always prioritizes safety in the working area immediately around it. And those are just a few of the built-in functions. At the same time, ZF’s electric drive units for agricultural machinery are helping to cut emissions and fuel consumption. This in turn is making work in the fields faster, more efficient and more cost-effective.