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America’s agriculture industry is facing a labor crisis. In California, the country’s top agriculture state, more than 40% of farmers in the past five years have been unable to find enough workers to support production.
Technology, however, may be coming to the rescue. Many farmers across the country and globe are increasingly relying on precision agriculture practices to help them produce more with fewer resources. They’re also turning to autonomous farming robots to keep their farms producing.
This might have been unthinkable even at the dawn of the 21st century, but recent advances in a variety of autonomous farming technologies, including robots, tractors, and machine learning, have made this possible.
Download our white paper Off-Road Trends: Driving Cleaner, More Efficient and Connected Machinery, and learn what influences the advances in mobile heavy machinery.
Understanding autonomous farming robots
The use of autonomous robots and drones has emerged as a major trend in agriculture. They are used for applications ranging from nursery farming and seeding, fertilizing, irrigation, weeding, pruning, picking, harvesting, sorting, and packing. One robot offering can even handle crop monitoring and phenotyping, providing data that agronomists can use to breed even better crops.
Drones, meanwhile, can be outfitted with special cameras that help monitor crop stress, plant growth, and predict yields. Others can be outfitted to carry and deliver herbicides, fertilizer, and water.
Beyond simply helping farmers deal with their industry’s labor shortage, these robots offer a variety of advantages. They can reduce a farm’s use of pesticides, for instance. They can operate 24 hours a day, and protect humans from engaging in dull, repetitive, and sometimes dangerous tasks.
As the world’s population approaches 10 billion people by 2050, according to United Nations estimates, autonomous farming will play a vital role in helping farmers improve their production yields.
Autonomous farming engineering challenges
While the tasks robots complete are often dull and repetitive, they are not without engineering challenges. Take harvesting and picking, for instance. As explained in a 2017 article in Control Engineering, a harvesting robot must overcome many obstacles. For example, the vision system that determines the location and ripeness of produce sometimes operates in dusty, low-light conditions. In addition, the robotic arm must navigate obstacles, being both flexible enough and accurate enough so it does not damage the product as it is being picked.
Autonomous farming vehicles
Related, emerging technology is autonomous farming vehicles. These are engineered to operate with full autonomy, that is, without a driver or any form of direct human control. Such equipment is becoming available for mowing, plowing, planting, weeding, spraying, and harvesting crops. Machines use sensors based on LiDAR, radar, and digital video.
The Canadian start-up DOT has introduced its Power Platform, a diesel-powered, 20-foot-long chassis that is fully autonomous, relying on GPS coordinates to navigate an operator’s pre-programmed routes. The platform can be easily and quickly fitted with commercially available implements, currently including a 30-foot SeedMaster drill, a 120-foot Pattison Connect sprayer, or a SeedMaster grain cart. The company promotes a 20% savings on-farm fuel, labor, and equipment capital costs, and predicts more than 100 farm implements eventually will be compatible with the platform.
Meanwhile, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) John Deere recently introduced a concept for its newest, electric, zero-emissions autonomous tractor, with an electric power output of 500 kilowatts (approximately 670 horsepower). The company bills it as the “future of farming.”
Autonomous technology seems to make the most sense in the U.S., where 41% of farmland is larger than 19 acres, and 25% is larger than 3,000 acres. However, the trend is growing worldwide. A September 2020 report by Research and Markets projects the global market for autonomous farming equipment will reach $128 billion (USD) by 2025, driven by advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
The autonomous revolution
The growing demand for food across the world comes at a time when farmers are challenged to find labor. And that is helping prompt an autonomous farming revolution, as robots and automated machines are increasingly being put to work in fields and nurseries, freeing farmers to focus on improving yields.
To learn more about how Parker is helping agriculture manufacturers evolve to sustainability trends, read our Off-Road Trends White Paper.
This article was contributed by Pneumatics Team.
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25 Jan 2021
Innovations in rail travel are making trains faster, safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly. Of all the transportation modes, rail is leading the way in new technologies.
Electric railways are becoming more common in response to both environmental and cost concerns. High-speed rail technology is promising speeds beyond 300 mph in a matter of a few years. And, without a doubt, rail transport is more autonomous than other forms of transportation.
Let’s start by taking a look at what is happening with regard to railway electrification.
Most high-speed trains today get their electricity from overhead wires or catenaries using a pantograph. That’s because, given current designs and technologies, batteries can’t be sized to supply the necessary power and still fit on the train. Diesel engines turning generators don’t meet new environmental mandates. Plus, the weight, storage demands and costs of diesel fuel, along with fire safety concerns, create added challenges. Another option has been to use a shoe to take electricity from a third rail (similar to light rail), but this has proven to create too much friction between the shoe and rail at high speeds.
A major challenge when using pantographs to take power from the catenary is maintaining consistent contact between the two without creating too much friction. Most pantograph systems work on compressed air. An auxiliary compressor can deliver the needed air supply, but this method has proven costly and the compressor takes up valuable space that could be put to better use in optimizing capacity for freight or passengers.
Several companies have invested in alternatives. Parker eliminated the need for an auxiliary compressor by designing a compact, fully integrated “plug and play” control system, which contains all the pneumatic functions along with a reservoir. The redesigned main control module system is linked to the reservoir, from which the pantograph system draws compressed air. This solution is attractive since it’s lightweight, space-efficient, less expensive and requires fewer components that need to be maintained and replaced.
Another issue that crops up with catenaries is ice on the overhead wires. To combat this problem, some trains are deploying two pantographs so that the first one knocks off the ice. To handle travel in either direction, train makers often package a pair of pantographs in the same overhead fairing, mounting them face-to-face.
Along with the desire to convert more diesel locomotives to electricity is an interest in minimizing or reusing electric energy. Beyond the obvious environmental benefits are cost advantages, since energy (fuel) represents the largest cost component in total transport costs. This has led to an increased interest in many energy-saving technologies like regenerative braking that converts the kinetic energy from the braking motion into electric energy for purposes of energy reuse. Electricity is then fed back through the overhead lines so it can power an accelerating train on another track or be stored for future use.
Challenges remain, however, to find sufficient space for storing electricity. When there is no place to store or use the electricity, it gets burned off in roof-mounted braking resistors (rheostatic braking) or the train switches to friction braking.
Energy storage systems are currently available in multiple forms. Some of the more common include flywheels, electric double-layer capacitors, batteries, fuel cells and superconducting magnetic energy storage devices. In evaluating the various options, attention is paid to their high energy density and power density, as well as their total cost, environmental impact, space efficiency and weight.
In general, battery-based energy storage systems have higher energy densities but their capital costs are often higher, and they have more limited lifespans. The market is looking for technology breakthroughs that will lower the cost of the storage systems. By 2030, for example, it is expected that the cost of lithium-ion batteries will drop considerably due to technology advances regarding their design and production. There are, however, environmental drawbacks of batteries since they use toxic materials. Flywheels offer the greatest environmental appeal, but the future ideal solution is seen as one that will combine the advantages of different energy-storage technologies.
Regenerative braking is preferred because, in addition to its obvious energy efficiency, it minimizes wear and tear. Another option, however, is the use of linear eddy-current brakes which consist of electrical coils positioned along the rails. The coils serve as magnets with continually switched north and south poles. When the magnets move along the rail, their changing magnetic field creates another field in the metal rail, which creates electrical tension and eddy currents to provide enough resistance to slow the train.
Improving train aerodynamics is yet another way to significantly affect energy usage, since up to 60% of the tractive force can be lost due to drag and friction. Covering roof-mounted equipment with streamlined fairings also reduces drag and limits the booming sound trains make when traveling through a tunnel.
Solar rail is a relatively new concept for producing clean energy for railways.
Australia has been effectively using solar panels on the roofs of its electric rail cars since 2017.
Hydrogen power is also being explored for greater sustainability. With this technology, fuel cells would consist of an anode, cathode and electrolyte membrane. Hydrogen would pass through the anode where it splits into electrons and protons. As the electrons are pushed through a circuit, they would generate an electric charge that is stored in lithium batteries or directly used by a train’s electric motor.
As is the case with some other technologies designed to conserve energy, the hydrogen concept needs to be perfected to ensure cost competitiveness and safety.
Research is ongoing to make trains even faster and more energy efficient in the future.
In the area of high-speed rail technology, superfast maglev trains are gaining momentum. Key to their ability to reach unmatched record speeds is the use of magnets that float carriages above the ground without wheels. The technology already is being used in Europe with a second-generation technology being promised to hit the market by 2027 offering speeds in the 300+ mph range.
Elon Musk is additionally touting a hyperloop that would hit speeds up to 700 mph. The hyperloop consists of a vacuum-sealed tube that reduces air resistance and carries “pods” using passive maglev technology.
These examples represent just a few of the many innovations being explored to accelerate the speed and energy efficiency of today’s railways.
With the higher speeds, however, come greater concerns regarding safety and the added burden on various components, including increased vibration and heat.
Fire safety was a focus of Europe’s EN 45545 initiative which outlined new safety requirements for railways, especially regarding fire concerns. Parker was the first hose manufacturer in Europe to develop rail hoses using a new rubber compound that meets the requirements of EN 45545, while also offering cost savings and easy installation with its improved bend radius.
This article contributed to by Dave Walker, market development manager, Rail, Motion Systems Group, Parker Hannifin.
5 Jan 2021
Looking ahead to the future of industry, with all the advancements in technology that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) holds in store, one might rightly wonder if pneumatics will still have pride of place on the production line. After all, it’s basically just gas or air passing through tubes! Surely all the innovation that’s happening with digitalisation will mean that IIoT components will become much more important than the pneumatics?
Pneumatics and IIoT inseparable
In actual fact, the real answer is that the two technologies will most likely become inseparable because they perform equally important functions that are increasingly becoming interdependent. Parker’s recent ‘Factory of the Future’ market research has revealed that pneumatic technology will indeed remain a critical component in the digital manufacturing field for the foreseeable future. Although pneumatic equipment indeed functions through pressurised gas or air moving through tubes, these tubes remain the ‘veins’ of the factory, delivering fast, precise and efficient movement on complex automation lines and facilitating quick and easy assembly, cleaning and a host of other functions on the production floor.
Pneumatic designs compliment approach of Industry 4.0
Since pneumatics have been around for quite some time, they already offer high reliability and efficiency, and their designs naturally complement the modular approach of Industry 4.0. In the increasingly digital manufacturing sphere, pneumatic systems are being adapted to answer the need for real-time process data through the incorporation of IIoT enabled nodes and sensors.
Although some pneumatics manufacturers have been slow off the mark to follow the digitalisation trend, Parker recognised the opportunity to serve customers with industry-leading connectivity and safety solutions well in advance. For instance, our entire product development cycle is now focused on making devices ‘smart’ by ensuring that they are able to communicate their status to the rest of the network. OEMs can now easily use these smart pneumatics equipped with cost-efficient sensors to intelligently monitor the real-time status, positioning, velocity, condition and efficiency of the various components that make up the modern automation line.
Although there is still a long road to travel in order to realise the ultimate vision of Industry 4.0, the intermediate period will see the gradual introduction of these smart products that offer both traditional control functions and actionable intelligence. The evolution of manufacturing is contingent upon the development and continuous improvement of this actionable intelligence, giving users the ability to track the uptime and availability of the machines in their plant. The analytics from this data will enable significant operational cost savings, for instance by performing predictive maintenance and achieving optimised operations using continuous position sensing.
Choices ahead to future-proof designs
While the technology is still in a state of flux, machine builders and their component suppliers will now need to make careful choices in order to future-proof their designs. Parker believes that open-source, low-cost Industrial Ethernet (IE)-based components and subsystems is the answer to this challenge, and so our recent product development efforts have been based on IO-Link enabled connectivity and network solutions.
IO-Link enabled products are just one example of how Parker, leading with purpose, is providing customers with cutting edge technologies for use in globalised manufacturing operations. Regardless of location, the use of IE and IO-Link network nodes make the control, safety and maintenance of a range of different devices, machines, systems and users simple and cost-effective.
Ensuring that key automation components such as pneumatic valves are IIoT-enabled is an excellent way of creating white space opportunities for innovation in the factory of the future.
To discover more about Parker’s I/O Link IIoT solution, please download our brochure IO-Link Solutions here.
Article contributed by Richard McDonnell, marketing development manager (IoT & Smart Products) Pneumatic Division, Parker Hannifin Corporation.
4 Jun 2020