Low-emission driverless tractor under development for New Zealand orchards

Smart Machine founders Nicholas Gledhill (left), Walter Langlois and Andrew Kersley. Photo / Provided

An innovative, low-emission, driverless tractor capable of performing up to three tasks at once is on the cards for New Zealand orchards.

The prototype tractor aims to transform the productivity of trellised orchards, while reducing carbon emissions.

The government is contributing $622,360 through the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fiber Futures, and the Smart Machine Company Limited, which is leading the three-year project, is contributing $622,360. an additional $945,520.

The tractor would be capable of performing multiple tasks, including canopy spraying, mulching, mowing, leaf trimming and defoliation, said MPI’s investment programs manager Steve Penno.

“In addition to reducing carbon emissions, we can expect reduced spray drift and improved soil and tree health.

“By sustainably improving orchard productivity, we could increase the value of crops like apples by meeting the growing demand for products produced with less environmental impact.

The end goal was to develop a fully electric tractor, but it needed to be suitable for remote rural areas, said Smart Machine managing director Andrew Kersley.

The Oxine.  Photo / Provided
The Oxine. Photo / Provided

“Some orchard tractors run 20 hours a day, seven days a week, so if growers have a fleet that needs frequent recharging, this might not be practical.”

With this in mind, Smart Machine is working on a diesel-hydraulic system with some electrical components, with a view to going all-electric later.

Smart Machine researchers would adapt the technology from successful testing of a tractor they developed for vineyards, Kersley said.

This tractor was developed in collaboration with Pernod, and tests took place in the vineyards of Pernod.

“The transition to developing an autonomous tractor for orchards is not a huge leap in technology, as pome fruit growing environments with their 2D canopies are close to how grapes are grown,” said Kersley.

Penno said the project aligns with the government’s Fit for a Better World roadmap to boost New Zealand’s recovery from Covid-19.

“Developing this low-emission alternative for orchards will help us achieve our goal of transitioning to a carbon-free society, boost sustainability and also has the potential to increase export earnings.”

The project is based in Blenheim. There are plans to expand testing to Motueka and Hawke’s Bay next year.

Comments are closed.