The phrase “electric vehicles” often produces tried-and-true images of sleek Tesla Model 3 cars, plug-in charging stations and an environmentally friendly future where clean, renewable energy is the dominate power source. While many electric vehicle manufacturers and their partners are focused on the consumer sector right now, the growing trend has reached the agricultural industry, too. The electric car is already here. Electric ag robots are close behind.
Johannes Mayer sees this as a natural transition within what he calls the “electrified economy.” As managing director and one of the four cofounders of Wiferion, a leader in industrial wireless charging and power solutions, Mayer is well-versed in the ways machinery reaps significant benefits from integrating battery-driven technologies.
Wiferion is working to stay ahead of this transition to electric power across the board. The company, which got its start providing wireless charging solutions for industrial vehicles and autonomous robots commonly found in logistics centers, recently expanded its reach to provide similar products to the agriculture industry.
“So many of the advantages of wireless charging in the industrial section are especially valid for agriculture because if you imagine an agricultural vehicle, you normally have a very dirty environment with soil and dust,” Mayer says. “Mechanical charging solutions with cables or metal contacts are not very well suited for this kind of environment because if you have dirt around your block, then it won't charge. Wireless charging, however, is perfectly suited to those environments because you get the same energy efficiency without the need for a charging cable.”
Designing electric solutions for farmers’ unique challenges
Wiferion isn’t just focused on wireless charging for agricultural robots and other autonomous machines. The company has developed a full energy solution that includes battery systems, charging technologies and a cloud-based fleet management system.
This three-pronged solution empowers farmers to run their operations with unprecedented efficiency by giving everything they need to access data about each vehicle’s battery health status, state of charge and more. While few farmers have access to a full fleet of autonomous vehicles today, Wiferion developed the technology with this not-so-distant future in mind.
“We strongly believe that if you have an autonomous vehicle that can do all the work autonomously, and then you need a human person to plug it in for charging, it's not really a good idea,” Mayer says. “So, you want to have the whole operational chain basically automated. This automation basically comes for free when you use wireless charging.”
“And if you imagine a farmer in the future, he will probably have different kinds of vehicles for different purposes,” Mayer continues. “It's not very efficient nor very cost effective to have a separate charging infrastructure for each of those vehicles. We believe it's very important to provide a common charge infrastructure that all the vehicles can share. When the robots are done with their shift, they can simply come to the charging station, park on the charging pad and charge autonomously.”
Overcoming limitations to electrify ag technologies
While Mayer believes an electrified future with fully autonomous vehicles is closer than one might think, combustion engines that run on oil and fossil fuels remain the dominant choice in most vehicles today. This is likely to change as battery technologies continue to improve. Although the battery chargers can be created at any power level, the individual batteries cannot be infinitely large to accommodate bigger vehicles.
“Four key factors for every battery technology are capacity or how many energy can you store in this battery; how fast can you charge it; how much does it cost; and how long is the lifespan?” Mayer says. “There are many exciting new technologies in labs around the globe today.”
Silicon batteries, for example, offer a promising alternative. According to Mayer, silicon batteries have improved energy storage and charging capabilities. While these batteries still struggle with lifespan-related issues, Mayer says these challenges are currently being worked on by scientists.
“Once those problems are solved,” he explains, “we will see batteries with better, faster charging capability and higher capacity.”
This change, Mayer believes, will be a significant step toward bringing a wide range of electricity-powered vehicles and robotics to the agriculture industry. In many ways, this transition will mirror what is already happening across the consumer market.
“The car industry is the front-runner of electrifying vehicles, and they are probably five years ahead of what we will see in the agricultural segment,” Mayer says. “I believe the shift to electric cars will happen much faster than we expect. You see electric cars every day, of course, but it's still the minority.
“I'm convinced that in three to four years from now, the picture will change completely,” he continues. “It will be a special event if you see a car with an engine, and it will be crazy to think that we spent more than 100 years driving those kinds of cars and polluting the air. I’m envisioning the same shift will happen for the agricultural segment as well.”