FIRST there were electric cars, now electric farm vehicles.
A study into the future of electric vehicles and robotics in agriculture by global technology analyst, IDTechEx, has found that, even though few farms can currently provide the power to fast-charge a Tesla or an electric tractor, the move is on to develop electric farm vehicles.
Many agricultural vehicle makers are going electric because the charging capability, affordability and other factors are rapidly falling into place just as they are for road vehicles.
For example, farm electricity can now follow the robots. United Kingdom technology company, Renovagen, sells a microgrid that, from the back of a farm truck, unrolls its solar cells like a carpet along a field.
United States wind energy systems developer, eWind, has tethered drones generating similar 30kW levels of electricity from the wind, specifically targeting farmers.
As with cars, agriculture went through a phase of electric variants of farm vehicles based on existing platforms and therefore it has not been very successful. But companies such as Kubota and John Deere have developed “born electric” concept tractors capitalising on the strengths by being robotic with triangular tracks.
The IDTechEx report says the lower cost of ownership and lower up-front cost are why small outdoor and greenhouse agrirobots are all electric: price parity comes first with small vehicles.
Potential in Australia
In Australia, University of Southern Queensland (USQ) Centre for Agricultural Engineering director, Professor Craig Baillie, said there was a focus in Europe on the development of electric-powered machinery, and it was a technology coming into play in Australia’s farming systems.
“At Agritechnica (agricultural machinery exhibition in Germany) last year, electric-powered tractors were a major piece of what John Deere in Europe sees as the future,” he said.
Professor Baillie said part of the attraction of electric power was it distributed traction to wheels without the high cost of drives and other engineering requirements.
It also gave the capacity to separately power the tractor and the implement.
“They have started introducing that slowly, particularly in Europe where they have large trailers hauling forage or liquid fertilisers where they have electric power to the trailer that’s connected to the tractor. There is a drive unit on the back of the machine as well as what the tractor is pulling,” he said.
“There is also an aspect where if you have independent drive on the implement you don’t have to put as much weight on the tractor to get power to the ground. They can lighten and distribute the load a lot better by having distributed drives.”
Power source challenge
Professor Baillie said the big challenge at the moment was providing the power source.
“You will start to see machinery where you still might have a diesel engine, but you have a diesel over electric drive. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some of that start to emerge,” he said.
“We are starting to see a lot more electric driven motors on planting equipment and other pieces of machinery. So, rather than it being driven by hydraulic motors it can be done electrically. There is a whole heap of ways in which that might start to manifest in terms of what we see now.”
Professor Baillie said another benefit was that electric sealed units didn’t need as much maintenance as conventionally driven machinery.
“In Australia we tend to like combustion engines and hydraulic motors, but in Europe it is a bit more palatable to go down the electric route,” he said.
Professor Baillie said one of the differences in Europe was their concept around energy independence where they were working towards an independent energy source on-farm that produced energy to power the vehicles, machinery and other equipment.
“They even look at using biogas to generate electricity which would then run an electric tractor as well as using biogas to power a biogas tractor,” he said.
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