The use of autonomous machinery to facilitate precision agricultural systems eases the need for manual-labor intensive practices, such as harvesting, mowing and spraying, and other daily maintenance requirements. Improving productivity with industrial-strength wireless M2M communication systems is an ongoing focus, and as technologies continue to develop, industrial agriculture companies can build efficient and productive farming systems.
An orchard in Florida recently completed a study of autonomous tractors utilized for performing mowing tasks in an orange grove. The vehicle is designed to function in a multi-vehicle care system that can be operated by a single human supervising several semi-autonomous vehicles, intervening only when a tractor encounters something it cannot handle autonomously. The development of this system would be considered a step forward from the traditional system which seats one person per tractor for tasks such as mowing and spraying. Currently, the tractor is being tested in a single-vehicle setting where it mows and sprays while being supervised by a remote operator.
Developing the infrastructure to deploy the autonomous tractor came with several challenges. Automated tractors need to be able to:
- Detect obstacles accidentally left in their paths
- Operate safely with the possibility of people in the work area
- Self-monitor health and functionality of a towed mower or sprayer
- Communicate relevant data back to the remote supervisor
- Utilize an interface easily operable by someone not trained in computers
The tests currently being performed with the autonomous tractor also are testing the reliability of the wireless M2M communications network used to conjunction with the tractors software. As the vehicle operates, statistics are being collected that track the number of supervisor interventions that occur when the vehicle encounters a situation it cannot resolve. Another important consideration being tested is the ease with which an autonomous, multi-vehicle system can be implemented into existing orchard workflow.
FreeWave Usage and Application
FreeWaves primary role in autonomous agricultural settings is the wireless Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications infrastructure. Supervisory control of multiple autonomous vehicles requires a robust M2M communications system capable of reaching all parts of the orchard, transmitting data at high speeds securely and reliably. The system uses two types of messages for functionality: small, real-time data transmissions that are sent in pulses and allow the supervisor to always be in control of the vehicle when necessary; and, large data transmissions, mainly for images, that provide context to the operation data allowing the supervisor to have a clearer picture of what has caused the vehicle to stop.
To accommodate the two different types of data transmissions, a dual communications system was implemented in the orchard: one, a low-bandwidth, but highly reliable M2M network operating at 900 MHz; the other a high-bandwidth M2M network for transmitting images operating on a 2.4 GHz frequency. FreeWaves M2M communications solutions can be deployed in this setting with an installation of a tower at a base station that supports both the 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz frequencies. Operating on both frequencies is ideal for an autonomous agricultural system especially an orchard that contains large trees and excess foliage with the potential to disrupt high-speed networks (2.4 GHz and above).
The autonomous tractor deployment in the orchard is still being tested. Preliminary results indicate that an M2M communications infrastructure utilizing the single repeater tower of 120 feet is sufficient for covering nearly the entire 3,300-acre tree grove. Small dead zones have been detected where taller trees are present, so installations of small repeaters have been necessary.
Orchard managers utilized Real-Time Kinematics (RTK) for its GPS capabilities in navigating the orchard with up to a centimeter level of accuracy. Real-time data corrections can be used for both the precise calculation of a machines positioning in the field as well as for navigation systems for automatic machine guidance. The correction data is sent via wireless M2M networking solutions that are used specifically for reliable wireless data transmission, thereby eliminating the need for wiring. The base station receiver can send the corrections to an unlimited number of receivers in the field.
A wireless M2M network featuring a comprehensive installation of FreeWaves wireless M2M communications platforms has the potential to solve most of the connectivity issues in an autonomous agricultural setting. As a solution, it enables high-speed data transmission, mesh networking and connection over multiple frequencies.
Highlights of Success
- Implementation of a reliable M2M communications network for the use of autonomous vehicles for orchard operations
- Successful testing site for future precision agriculture models across the country
- Improved operational efficiency of the orchard via advanced automation techniques
- Incorporates data transmission functionality so operator can understand reasons for tractor stoppage
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