An innovative, low-emissions, driverless tractor able to perform up to three tasks at once is on the cards for New Zealand orchards.
The prototype tractor aims to transform the productivity of trellised orchards, while reducing carbon emissions.
The Government is contributing $622,360 through the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI's) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures, and the Smart Machine Company Limited, which is taking the lead on the three-year project, is contributing a further $945,520.
The tractor would be able to perform several tasks, including canopy spraying, mulching, mowing, trimming, and leaf defoliation, MPI's director of investment programmes, Steve Penno said.
"As well as lowering carbon emissions, we could expect to see reduced spray drift and improved soil and tree health.
"By improving orchard productivity sustainably, we could increase the value of crops like apples by meeting the growing demand for products made with less impact on the environment."
The end goal was to develop a fully electric tractor but it needed to be suitable for remote rural areas, Smart Machine chief executive officer Andrew Kersley said.
"Some orchard tractors run 20 hours a day, seven days a week, so if growers have a fleet that needs frequent recharging that might not be practical."
With this in mind, Smart Machine is working on a diesel-hydraulic system with some electric components, with the view to converting to full electric further down the track.
Smart Machine researchers would adapt the technology from the successful testing of a tractor they developed for vineyards, Kersley said.
This tractor was developed in collaboration with Pernod, and testing was taking place on Pernod vineyards.
"The transition to developing an autonomous tractor for orchards isn't a huge technological leap, as pipfruit-growing environments with their 2D canopies are close to the way grapes are grown," Kersley said.
Penno said the project aligned with the Government's Fit for a Better World roadmap to boost New Zealand's recovery from Covid-19.
"Developing this low-emissions alternative for orchards will help in our goal of shifting to a zero-carbon society, boost sustainability and also has the potential to increase export earnings."
The project is based in Blenheim, There are plans to expand testing to Motueka and Hawke's Bay next year.