The rise of agricultural robots marks a time of increased anticipation. Many farmers now envision a future where weeding, spraying, and harvesting technologies tackle back-breaking repetitive tasks and minimize the need for expensive manual labor. Meanwhile, startups and equipment manufacturers are working overtime to transform possibilities into prototypes and on to mass production.
For all their potential, however, agricultural robots continue to face a number of hurdles on their way to the marketplace. These advancing technologies must be safe, capable and reliable. All of these companies focus on sensors, guidance systems and algorithms, but all these components have one common need: power.
That’s where VARTA, a leader in battery technology, has, quite literally, put its energy. Traditionally, the company was in the business of creating lithium-ion batteries for handheld applications like radios, phones, medical and industrial applications. Three years ago, VARTA went looking for the next big battery market. VARTA has been working to become the choice partner for emerging and established agricultural robotics companies ever since.
“We selected the agricultural robotics market because it's projected to grow very fast,” says Gordon Clements, general manager for VARTA storage. “The business case for the growth is quite strong.”
Currently, it provides two types of solutions. The first is a custom battery that is designed especially for a client that is building a robot with specific dimensions and power needs. This battery will be unique and sold exclusively to that client, which makes it ideal for the John Deere’s of the world.
For startups that don’t want to throw $1 million euros behind a battery, VARTA offers a less expensive solution. Option two is an off-the-shelf model that is a simple, safe, and reliable power supply.
“There's many other things that mature startups want to invest time and energy in, such as their IP, the reason why they’ve come to the market and why people should buy from them,” Clements says. “Beyond that, the battery does not define their product.”
Unlike the first generations of smartphones where the size and shape of the battery dictated the size and shape of the phone, Clements continues, robot batteries typically need to be variations on a square or rectangular box. Some are a little shorter. Others are a little wider.
“It doesn't really matter because they can design the robot around the battery without impacting on the performance of the robot,” he says. “If this customer can simply buy a well-developed modular battery from VARTA and can connect two or more modules to fit their power requirements, then that is a good solution for them.”
Currently, these modular solutions can deliver batteries up to 120 volts and 40 kilowatt-hours. VARTA plans to go bigger and brighter, delivering batteries with 1,000 volts and 100-plus kilowatt-hours by 2024. To reach this goal, VARTA make more intelligent and powerful modules that have the ability to self-configure and interface with practically any robotics application.
“We don't want the farmer to have to go into the field and start to play around with a computer in order to connect these batteries together,” Clements says. “I don't think there are many farmers who are able to do that, and even if they were, I don't think that's what they want to spend their time doing. So, we've developed a universal CAN gateway so that can not only supply a standard application-specific battery, but we can also interface it to almost anything.”
While this helped solve the interface problem, developing high-voltage modules posed an entirely different issue.
“If we're going to go to 1,000 volts and we only have a 48-volt module, I need maybe 20 modules in one direction and another 20 in another direction,” Clements laughs. “It’s going to be the father of a robot rather than the robot itself.”
For this need, VARTA turned to the home energy storage part of its business for answers. Solar panels that store excess energy provided a good model for how to create high-voltage systems for agricultural robots.
One option is to develop energy storage modules and solar panels on a trailer that would act as an in-field charging station whenever a robot’s battery needs to be replaced. VARTA also worked with power supply company IN2Power to create a second solution: a wireless charging solution.
“You have one plate on the charging station and one plate on the robot,” Clements says. “Without any cables, the robot can approach the charging station in the field, and when those plates come within 35 millimeters of one another, the energy is transferred from one to the other. Then, from a power perspective, you have a 24-hour operation.”
As VARTA continues to find new and better ways to power the next generation of agricultural robots, the company is thinking about the future, too.
“If you can manage the crop at the same time that you can weed the crop, then you can gather a lot of data,” Clements says. “Data is the key for the future. In order to optimize the whole system—the battery, the robot, the charging station—you need to collect data.”
VARTA’s universal gateway has already started gathering mobile data from the battery, sending it to the cloud to be analyzed. This data helps informs artificial intelligence decisions that are sent back as instructions to the robot and battery.
For example, the robot might optimize certain parameters or use specific applications in order to extend the battery life. It may seem like a small step forward, but it has the potential to create a profound impact across the industry.
“The more data we collect about an application, the more decisions we can make about optimizing the battery,” Clements says. “And if we have enough data and if the data tells us the right things, it may be possible to optimize the next generation of battery so that we can deploy smaller, cheaper solutions in the future.”