Continuing the robot theme focused on last week, Peter Hill describes an extraordinary prototype diet feeder that collects, prepares and dispenses a mixed-ingredient ration without human intervention
Forget the pastoral image of a farmhand stacking bales of sweet hay while chewing on a piece of grass – robots are the farmworkers of the future. And, as last week’s Farmers Weekly feature pointed out, they are already making an impact on a growing number of farms.
“Apart from the high cost of labour, it’s becoming more difficult to employ people on farms,” says Paul te Boekhorst, R&D manager at Dutch farm equipment firm Schuitemaker Machines. “The hours can be unsociable and it’s uncomfortable when the weather’s not so nice. Besides, maybe you only need someone for part of the day to look after the cows’ needs.”
If all continues according to plan, producers will soon be able to add a fully automatic silage feeding system to the existing mix of robotic machinery thanks to Schuitemaker’s Innovado vehicle which is being trialled on several farms in Holland.
“The market for conventional tractor-operated and self-propelled diet feeders is very competitive with a lot of manufacturers involved,” says Mr te Boekhorst. “We decided to jump ahead of our competitors by developing a fully automatic system.”
Automatic feeders already exist but they collect feed from bunkers that have to be filled and are confined to a guide rail positioned along the front of the cows’ feeding barrier.
The Innovado, in contrast, is fully self-contained. It self-loads grass or maize silage from a conventional clamp, collects additional ingredients from overhead, mixes the ration and then travels to the cattle shed to dispense it.
Schuitemaker’s Innovado autonomous self-propelled diet feeder loads itself at the silage clamp using a block cutter.
“There are two big advantages over fixed-installation, semi-automatic systems,” says Paul te Boekhorst. “When you move silage from the clamp into storage bunkers, it can rapidly lose quality because of exposure to the air. The Innovado takes silage direct from the clamp, just as farmers do now.
For guidance, transponder technology used by dockside container handling vehicles was chosen over GPS because of the need to maintain 1-2cm accuracy inside buildings where the vehicle works very close to the feed barrier.
“The Innovado’s route is guided by transponders set into a concrete or block-paved surface. Each has a unique code, so the vehicle knows where it is, and a gyroscope monitors vehicles movement and acceleration.
Four-wheel steering provides maximum manoeuvrability, while an anti-collision system (using laser scanners front and rear) slows the vehicle first before bringing it to a stop if the obstruction persists.
A single line of transponders plotting a route from the cattle shed fans out at the silage clamp so that the machine can position itself to progressively work along the clamp face.
The silage block cutter is mounted on telescopic arms and has a side-shift mechanism so that from each position the vehicle can take silage from straight ahead and from left and right.
“It starts at the top of the clamp, neatly cutting away three blocks of silage at the same level before working its way down to the floor and moving position to start at the top again,” explains Paul te Boekhorst.
This is an ambitious project for a company like Schuitemaker because although a driverless vehicle does not need a cabin, controls or work-lights, it has far more complex electronics and safety measures in order to operate autonomously.
“We have tried to use existing, proven components throughout the machine where possible for reasons of cost and reliability,” says Mr te Boekhorst.
• See the Innovado it action in a video taken by our Dutch sister magazine Boerderji