Technology on view at Fruit Focus 2016 - driverless tractor for fruit growers among kit on display

Concerns over potential shortages of labour and skills following Brexit were addressed at Fruit Focus (20 July) at East Malling Research, Kent, by companies exhibiting the latest machinery and technology for fruit growers.

ProbotiQ Xpert: fitted to Fendt Vario to demonstrate robotic precision of driverless tractor at Fruit Focus event - image: HW
ProbotiQ Xpert: fitted to Fendt Vario to demonstrate robotic precision of driverless tractor at Fruit Focus event - image: HW

Demonstrated for the first time in the UK, the ProbotiQ Xpert system driverless tractor headlined the event with a breathtaking display of robotic precision as NP Seymour put a Fendt Vario through its paces.

Using easy-to-operate patented Teach & Playback technology, the tractor is programmed by pressing the "teach" button and then driving the route once. All actions - turns, acceleration, speeds and power take-off (PTO) engagement and disengagement - are memorised so they can be repeated again but without the operator. Having "learnt" what it needs to do, the tractor can then perform the same task, whether mowing or spraying, without a driver.

A Fendt Vario complete with ProbotiQ Xpert will cost in the region of £90,000 + VAT, but with concerns over labour costs and shortages it could be worth considering for those regular and routine tasks such as mowing and spraying orchards.

Visitors to Fruit Focus also had the first opportunity to see the new Branson FR "00" compact tractor specifically modified for fruit production. Suited to all soft and top fruits, stone fruits, bushes and vines, it has a working width of just 997mm, making it narrow enough to travel between rows of tabletop strawberries for mowing and spraying.

An upper fender height of 930mm and a foldable mid-ROPS frame mean this tractor is also at home in polytunnels, while a front axle 45 degs turn angle, four-wheel drive and power steering give manoeuvrability for work in confined spaces.

"We started with Branson in November last year and exhibited at LAMMA in January, where interest was shown in our tractors for fruit growing and polytunnel use - where they needed a narrow tractor and a suitable fender height so as not to damage the fruit," said Branson Tractors' Nathan Walker, based in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire. "Subsequently we went to fruit farms and saw the adaptations made to old tractors and decided to offer something 'off the peg', hence this specialist conversion for growers in the UK."

Depending on the model, the quiet three-cylinder 1175cc diesel engine produces 21hp to 30hp and is Stage IIIA emissions compliant. There is a choice of 6F/2R mechanical or two-range hydrostatic (HST) transmission. The tractor also comes with mid foldable ROPS, one remote valve, 540/1,000rpm rear PTO plus mid PTO and CAT 1 three-point linkage with 650kg lift. Tractor weight is from 790kg and prices start from less than £10,000 + VAT.

Antonio Carraro: with reversible steering a key feature

Another tractor attracting attention, the Antonio Carraro TTR4400 HST II was exhibited by Kirkland of Maidstone. This model replicates the top-of-the-range AC tractors but on a smaller scale. It features a three-cylinder, 38hp Kubota direct injection engine for low noise, less vibration, reduced fuel consumption and maximum efficiency. But it is the combination of ACTIO chassis with oscillation, HST drive, reversible steering and isodiametric driving wheels that allows this tractor to perform many different operations on all types of terrain - whether plain, hillside or rough ground.

Technological advances seen at Fruit Focus included the WET Sensor from Delta-T Devices. Enabling growers to measure the three vital substrate properties of water content, pore water electrical conductivity and temperature, the sensor is said to be fast, accurate and easy to use.

It enables growers to take substrate readings each day to guide fertigation decisions, helping to establish and maintain optimal growing conditions. The sensor's rods are easy to push into substrate with minimal root and structural disturbance. Also in the kit is an HH2 Readout Unit to give an immediate display of each reading and to store the readings in the unit's memory for downloading to a PC for analysis, plus a handy carrying case.

The WET Sensor can also be used with a suitable data logger, such as Delta-T Devices' GP1 and GP2, for long-term monitoring - especially useful when other parameters are recorded at the same time. Calibrations are available for growers using coir, peat, mineral wool and potting soils.

Agrovista officially launched its fireblight warning service at Fruit Focus but more technology was shown with the latest tunnel-monitoring developments. Developed by Plantsystems, these systems are designed to improve irrigation and disease management using telemetry and software.

"Our tunnel-monitoring system consists of a network of radio-linked monitoring stations with sensors that monitor critical agronomic areas related to the growth of the plant," said Agrovista commercial head of fruit Mark Davies. "These include temperature, relative humidity, irrigation, soil moisture and electrical conductivity, a measure of the levels of fertilisers."

The service is mainly aimed at substrate crops and is available on any internet-enabled device 24/7, providing real-time data to remotely track what is happening in the tunnel at critical times. Data can be monitored and interpreted daily, weekly or monthly. Patterns can be identified to advise on the most effective moisture, temperature and fertiliser regimes, and alerts can be selected to warn of overheating and high humidity.

The system can also be used to apply irrigation/fertigation remotely from PC or smartphone according to soil moisture status. "This helps optimise water and fertiliser use and can help improve crop quality," added Davies.

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