ZF Innovation Tractor 2016 Tractor pulls away

The Innovation Tractor is a shining example for an intelligent mechanical system. For the first time, a farm vehicle can see, think and act with ZF technology.

Harrows, plows, combine harvesters: tractors are used to tow a very wide range of agricultural equipment. Farmers must frequently swap out one tool for another, depending on the work they have to do. It’s a costly business in terms of both time and resources.

But what if, in the future, tractors could do all that by themselves? A team of ZF engineers has been doing some intensive brainstorming on the future of agricultural machinery – based on close observation of the market, manufacturers and the needs of farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole. The outcome of their efforts is a tractor plus trailer packed full of the latest technology and a multitude of features: the ZF Innovation Tractor 2016. It can be maneuvered using a tablet computer, automatically recognizes different agricultural tools and implements, and hitches itself up to the right one all on its own. In addition, the trailer is fitted with an all-electric driven axle that significantly improves the pulling power of the combined vehicle.

Video: ZF's Innovation Tractor

Watch the video to find out more about the ZF Innovation Tractor.

Dr. Gerhard Gumpoltsberger, Head of Innovation Management and Testing

Almost every feature in the Innovation Tractor depends on a network of sensors and cameras managed by intelligent software and interacting with mechatronic systems in the steering and driveline. “ZF is capable of making vehicles see, think and act – even when those vehicles are tractors,” emphasizes Dr. Gerhard Gumpoltsberger, Head of Innovation Management and Testing.
This is why the various functions can also be operated via a secondary HMI (Human-Machine Interface) – in this case, a tablet that can be used to control the tractor by a driver standing next to it. The tablet shows a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle. But how does it do that? Via a drone?

“Our software is continuously processing the graphical information streaming from a total of six cameras mounted in the rear and on the roof of the tractor. The system builds a 360° view, which is then displayed on the tablet,” explains Gumpoltsberger. This serves as the starting point for the SafeRange function that enables the tractor driver to leave the cab and operate the vehicle from a handheld device. This saves a lot of time and stress in cluttered farmyards with limited space for maneuvers, where reversing large trailers is the order of the day.

“Tractor, switch trailers!”

But the system is even more convenient. Using the Hitch Detection function, the Innovation Tractor is capable of automatically identifying a specific trailer, backing up to it, and moving into the ideal hitching position – all controlled by tablet. Pressing a single button is enough to trigger the maneuvering process, which is managed entirely by advanced ZF electronics, including all the complex forward and backward movements. To do this, the cameras home in on targets attached to the trailer – visual clues that enable the system to pinpoint the trailer’s position. Based on this information, the control system calculates the vehicle’s trajectory – the optimum path for hitching up to the trailer. The tractor’s “real” position and trajectory are continuously verified against the updated video streams, so they can be recalculated and adjusted as necessary.

But safety always comes first. If somebody walks between trailer and maneuvering tractor, the system can bring the hitching process to an immediate stop – even if the operator holds down the button. This safety feature, known as Pedestrian Detection, is permanently active on the Innovation Tractor.

Using the SafeRange feature, the tractor can be hitched up to a trailer by 
a user standing outside the vehicle and controlling it from a tablet computer.

Small tractors – with traction to spare

On loose, muddy ground or steep inclines, even a tractor’s all-wheel drive will eventually reach its limits – unless the trailer is fitted with Traction Management, an electric axle drive developed by ZF in a joint venture with trailer manufacturer Fliegl. The technology has its origins in city buses, for which ZF has been supplying all-electric drives since way back when. Electric power is provided by the TERRA+ generator module mounted on the tractor’s TERRAMATIC transmission.

The trailer gives a helping hand. With two electric drives mounted alongside the wheels on the trailer’s center axle, the entire combination gains extra traction. This is especially useful when towing a fully laden trailer over 
loose surfaces.

The electronic control system automatically detects when and how much additional traction is required – and then delivers the necessary push. “Such a concept is especially attractive to farmers who would otherwise have to buy a more powerful tractor just to make a limited number of journeys with a fully laden trailer. Thanks to the trailer’s e-axle, they no longer have to make this unnecessary investment,” explains Olrik Weinmann, who leads the Innovation Tractor project. This represents genuine added value for users, as well as improving productivity. “With the Innovation Tractor, we want to show what’s feasible with the right technology,” he adds. ZF has started the ball rolling; now the industry can run with it.

Pictures: Dominik Gigler

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