THE future has arrived at the Almond Board of Australia’s Almond Centre of Excellence Orchard, with the introduction of an autonomous tractor to assist with farm operations, increase worker safety and enhance orchard efficiency.
The tractor – fitted with GOtrack technology – is part of the Hort Innovation and Almond Board of Australia trial ‘Demonstration of functional driverless tractor for Australian horticulture’ (AS17002).
It was decided that AME Group had the most appropriate technology available to facilitate the trial, with their staff engaged to install the GOtrack technology on existing ABA equipment. Through initial project findings it was identified that reliable connectivity was paramount to the success of introducing autonomous technology into properties.
The project’s investigations determined the most effective coverage would be sourced through ConnectedFarms.
As part of the project’s milestone outputs a Demonstration Day was conducted in February last year at the Loxton experimental farm, and demonstrations were held at Bright Light, Amaretto and Wilga Lane Produce.
The project team will assess the day-to-day performance of the driverless tractor over an extended period to measure its consistency and reliability under a range of duties and orchard conditions.
Almond orchard practices are common to many crops, so demonstration days will also be held for other industries such as olive, citrus and table grape.
Most recently, AME Group Managing Director Cam Clifford and other staff members visited the ACE Orchard last month to further establish the technology at the site and to demonstrate the tractor’s compacity to ABA orchard staff.
Gotrack to increase worker safety
GOtrack was first introduced to Australia in 2020, with the first kit installed for the Australian Wine Research Institute in the Barossa Valley.
However, GOtrack has been working in Europe for over five years in commercial operations, with over 40 units working in the field.
AME Group Managing Director Cam Clifford said there were a number of considerations to make when installing the technology within almond orchards.
“I think the biggest thing to think about for almond orchards is obstructions to consider,” he said.
“When we were thinking about the systems working in almonds we had to think about the GPS array and think about all the equipment on it in terms of the branches and tree structure.”
Mr Clifford said the technology can be fixed to existing tractor assets.
“Currently on the market there are no commercial tractors available that are fully GPS autonomous,” he said. “So GOtrack is the only commercial system in the market and it is designed to be retrofitted for any model of tractor. All main commercial brands can make kits for.”
Mr Clifford said the technology would provide numerous benefits to almond growers.
“It is a cost-saving measure for sure especially in terms of not having to have a worker in the tractor,” he said.
“But if we think about things like safety aspects, such as driver fatigue and safety from the respect that arguably it can work 24 hours a day without any safety issues.
“It can operate up and down the fields for an 18-hour day, aside from fuelling and servicing it.”
The technology can be operated – including starting and stopping the vehicle, increasing and decreasing speed and changing its operating perimeters – and monitored via a phone app.
“Any alerts where the alert system is activated whether it’s an obstruction or from any high temperate or oil alerts, it will be sent to your phone by text alert or the app,” Mr Clifford said.
“It’s remotely monitored and at any time you can look at the app and see where the tractor is on the block within the perimeters.
“If it’s spraying then you can see the liquid left in the tank, what rate it’s spraying at etc. what it’s sprayed, what it hasn’t sprayed, so you can see that all on the app as it goes along.”
Mr Clifford said interest in the technology among growers from numerous industries had been high.
“There is a high level of interest due to the availability of staff, and a lot of staff are not wanting to spend so much time in the tractor so wanting to reduce that time,” he said.
“And those difficult times of operating like in the middle of the night are not so desirable anymore.
“Trying to find staff to work those hours and sit in tractors going up and down rows is getting harder and harder, and that’s aside from the cost side of it.”
Mr Clifford said the autonomous technology can form part of an orchard’s operations.
“It might not be that the entire farm is run on autonomous but it’s supporting operations,” he said.
“You might have one conventional sprayer and one autonomous sprayer. And obviously on larger farms there would be more units operating.
“All the units are on a subscription basis so it is quite affordable for small-scale operations so there isn’t a big upfront cost.”
AME Group will continue to work with the ABA for the remainder of the autonomous tractor trial.