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Improving Orchard Efficiency with Autonomous Utility Vehicles

Published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan

Citation:  2010 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 20 - June 23, 2010  1009415.(doi:10.13031/2013.29902)
Authors:   Bradley Hamner, Sanjiv Singh, Marcel Bergerman
Keywords:   Agricultural robot, automatic steering, autonomous navigation, specialty crops.

In modern orchards, many maintenance tasks call for a driver to steer a tractor through rows of trees at slow speeds over hundreds of acres as it mows or sprays. Similarly, manually-driven orchard platforms allow a crew of workers to perform tasks such as pruning, training, and thinning. In this paper we report on the development of vehicles capable of autonomous row following in orchards. Such vehicles increase efficiency and reduce production costs by moving a farm worker from an unproductive driving role to a productive one. In the past year, the technologies that enable such autonomous row following have been implemented on an electric utility vehicle capable of continuously driving orchard blocks; to date this vehicle has logged more than 130 km of driverless traversals. The vehicle uses laser range scanners to detect trees and other objects in its vicinity, builds a model of the row of trees, and uses this model to safely steer the vehicle along the row without GPS. It detects when it has reached the end of a row, turns, and enters the next row. This way the vehicle can drive entire orchard blocks autonomously, even if the rows are of varied lengths or trees are missing in the rows. In addition to the laser scanners, the only other sensors necessary are wheel encoders that continuously measure distance traveled and the steering angle. All computation is performed on a rugged laptop onboard the vehicle.

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