Dr Gregor Welsh of Soil Essentials looks at how driverless vehicles may shape the future of arable farming. Wendy Short reports.

A driverless tractor pulling a set of discs across a field could become a familiar sight in the not-too-distant future, according to Dr Gregor Welsh of Soil Essentials, the Northern UK distributor for the Dutch AgXeed range of autonomous tractors.

Arable farms were likely to be the main customers for the AgBot range, which comprises a tracked machine, a three-wheeled and a four-wheeled autonomous tractor, said Dr Welsh.

“The prototype AgXeed autonomous tractor was developed in Holland and first used in the field two-and-a-half years ago,” he said. “The tracked version was demonstrated at the Cereals event last year and it will be making an appearance at this year’s show.

“In terms of worldwide distribution, 30 models have been sold to date, with the first delivered to a farm in Australia this April. There has been a lot of interest in the UK and I believe that an order has been placed for a machine in the south of England; it is expected to be in operation later on in the year.”

Dr Welsh, who is based in Angus, Scotland, commented that trailed machinery sizes had increased in recent years, in an effort to reduce labour input and maximise efficiency. However models in the AgXeed range were limited to carrying three to four-metre implements. The comparatively narrow width was part of the machine’s lightweight design and its contribution to minimising the carbon footprint of farming operations, he said.

Arable farms were likely to be the main customers for the AgBot range

Arable farms were likely to be the main customers for the AgBot range

Communications between the autonomous tractor and the operator are managed via the AgXeed portal, which can be downloaded as a mobile phone app, or used on a personal computer, he explained. It uses the RTK (real time kinematic) network global navigation satellite system.

“A service map is provided with the autonomous tractors and this is the starting point for defining the operating area. If necessary, a farm can have multiple machines operating from the same portal. The system of alerts to any issues which might develop means that the machines do not have to be monitored around the clock, but a person will need to be assigned to oversee their progress while they are in operation.

“Implements can be fitted with a sensor so that a sub-soiler, for example, will stop if it encounters excess resistance. After shutting the machine down, the system will alert the machine manager to the situation.

“Each AgBot has a front and a rear camera, so that the operator can log on to see exactly what a machine is doing at any given time. These follow implements attached to the front and rear linkage, which have an eight-tonne lift capacity on the rear and three tonnes on the front.”

Gregor Welsh of Soil Essentials

Gregor Welsh of Soil Essentials

The machine has a 350-litre fuel tank which has to be refuelled on site and it will run for approximately 35 hours continuously, depending on the assigned task. It is prohibited from travelling on public highways, he added.

The tracked model in the range is the AgXeed AgBot 5.115T2, a 156 horsepower, four-cylinder Deutz diesel engine.

“The diesel engine is the only diesel-powered component and it is connected to an electrical generator. This means that if a sustainable and effective alternative to diesel is found at some point in the future, the models can be switched to another energy source,” said Dr Welsh. “All the components, apart from the engine, are electrically-driven and the drive train has a speed range of 0-13.5 km/hour.”

Fuel efficiency is comparable with a similar-sized standard tractor and models in the range have a 500-hour service interval. General maintenance is minimal, with transparent oil containers linked to the idlers on the tracks making it an easy task to visually check for adequate oil fill levels.

He predicted that it would not be too long before autonomous tractors would be found in machinery sheds on many UK arable units.

“The daily routine of operating an autonomous tractor is not unlike a farm manager at the morning meeting, instructing the team about the tasks for the day ahead. The main difference is that having the work carried out by a machine means that human error is taken out of the equation.

“For example, a staff member might be asked to avoid a certain area of the field or to take care to circumvent a telegraph pole. With the best will in the world, these instructions may not always be followed to the letter, but an autonomous machine will operate in a more consistent manner. The innovation is bringing increased precision to the country’s farming systems,” said Dr Welsh.


Prices for tracked autonomous tractors in the AgXeed range start at £230,000 for the basic model and go up to £300,000.

Specification AgBot 5.115T2

Variable track width adjustment between 1,800-3,000mm or 1,800-3,200mm (depending on chassis type and track size).

Tracks from 300mm-910mm width

Crop clearance 42cms

Optional electric-driven PTO (up to 100kW and 700V).