Autonomous Vehicles in the Fields and on the Roads

February 22, 2019

Widespread use of driverless vehicles has been talked about as a future reality, and the Department of BBE is helping to ensure that autonomous vehicles not only have a place on our roads, but also in our fields.

Below is an extract from the article “Autonomous Weed Control Research” written by Michael Reese. You can find the entire article here.

“The West Central Research and Outreach Center is leading a new collaboration with the University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (BBE), and The Toro Company (Toro) to develop autonomous vehicles for controlling weeds in pastures and row crops.  The project has been recently funded through a $750,000 grant from the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.   This is an interdisciplinary project at the WCROC utilizing staff from the crops, dairy, and renewable energy programs.

Autonomously controlled vehicles are quickly entering agricultural markets with the appearance of drones, tractors, and small robots.  The concept of this project is to enable weed control with minimal human supervision and with vehicles powered by the sun’s energy.  Farm operations typically compete for limited labor resources.  Weed control in pastures is usually a lower priority and using herbicides can be challenging if pastures contain both grasses and legumes.  For row crops, getting out in the field early after planting can aid in controlling weeds.  Weeding robots have the potential to be operating while human labor is still focused on spring planting and other activities.  Row crop robots also may enter fields in which crops are too mature for other equipment.  Similar to robotic vacuums now used in homes, a row crop weeding robot can be programed to move throughout a field by itself, and can also remove weeds either by mechanical methods or by directly applying a small amount of herbicide.       

An electrically-powered mower with manual and autonomous controls will be developed for weed control in WCROC pastures and a second electrically-powered manual and autonomous utility vehicle will be developed for weeding row crops.  Both autonomous vehicles will be refueled, or rather charged, in-part utilizing a portable solar charging trailer which is being developed at WCROC.  In addition to the charging station, WCROC staff will custom fabricate and test small-scale row crop weeding implements that will be attached to an electric utility vehicle.  Department of Computer Science and Engineering is responsible for developing autonomous control of both vehicles while BBE will focus on safety controls and mechanisms.

Man standing beside autonomous vehicle

The Toro Company, headquartered in Bloomington, is retrofitting a large diesel-fueled mower with electric motors and drive-by-wire capabilities and will assist in the integration of the autonomous controls and safeguards. […] During the spring and summer of 2019, the autonomous mower will be tested at Toro’s research facilities.  It will be field-tested within WCROC pastures during the summer of 2020. […] Agriculture is moving evermore quickly towards high technology applications.  The autonomous weed control project represents an exciting and new direction for the WCROC and the Renewable Energy Program into autonomously-controlled and renewably-fueled vehicles.  In addition to the benefits of powering these autonomous systems utilizing energy produced on farms, lowering pesticide use, potentially more effective weed control, and helping producers better manage limited labor resources; autonomous farm vehicles may also offer new opportunities for young producers to participate in a paradigm shift affecting future farm operations.”

Read the whole story by Michael Reese to learn more about where this research is going, and what the WCROC staff will be working on this winter to further this project along.


Autonomous vehicles on our roads could also impact stormwater systems.

Below is an extract from the article, “Hyper drive” written by Joel Hoekstra. Read the entire article here.

“Because the technology that controls [Autonomous Vehicles] is so precise, the width of our roads could be reduced, Fisher [Director of the UMN's Design Center] says. What’s more, a SCCS [smart cloud-based commuter system] could direct traffic so efficiently that just one (or two, at most) lanes could accommodate a large volume of vehicles. Fisher imagines that highways will look more like railroad beds, with two hard-surfaced parallel paths supporting the wheels of vehicles. That means more space could be devoted to bike lanes, walking paths, or even gardens. ‘Much of the street surface could be pervious,’ Fisher says. ‘It could be green. It could be gravel. Runoff won’t have to go into a storm sewer system and pollution won’t be swept into our rivers.’”