Remote control tractor helps authorities in dangerous situations

A suitcase among the luggage at an airport terminal is suspected of containing explosives. Another bag has also been found containing nerve gas according to detection equipment. Public authorities are working together to deal with the situation. A robot is used to move the bags outside, where a remote control tractor picks them up and transports them further away to be disposed of safely.

One way to prepare for dangers is to increase the amount of protection. However, this can only be taken so far. If a protective suit of armoured vehicle is made strong enough to protect against various threats, such as explosions or chemical weapons, it will probably also be clumsy, heavy and expensive. A smarter option would be to remove the human element entirely from the danger zone.

Fast 5G connection and electronic control

A 5G remote control package can be fitted to any recent Valtra tractor with fully electronic controls. All the remote control hardware, including a 360-degree camera, 5G modem and CAN bus cable, comes in a small case and can be installed in less than an hour. Compatible tractors include any model with the SmartTouch armrest.

The remote control tractor has a 360-degree camera on the bonnet and a 5G modem in the cab connected to the CAN bus, enabling all tractor functions to be controlled remotely.

Once fitted with all the equipment, the tractor can be controlled from anywhere – even from the other side of Finland. The operator uses standard tractor controls, including a driver’s seat with the SmartTouch armrest. The control signals are sent to the tractor using a fast 5G connection. The view from the 360-degree camera in the tractor is sent to the operator’s virtual reality headset or displayed on a screen. When the operator turns his head to the left, for example, he can see what is to the left of the tractor.

“The remote control system is based on an extremely fast, reliable and data secure 5G connection. The real-time video image and virtual reality make working safe and easy,” says Kimmo Pentikäinen, Vice President, Business Development, at Elisa Oyj.

The operator of the remote control tractor uses the same controls as in an ordinary tractor. The remote cab can be situated hundreds of kilometres away from the tractor itself. Thanks to virtual reality, the driver can see in all directions out of the cab just by turning his head. The screen displays the same view as the VR headset.

Elisa is a global pioneer in 5G technology and was selected as the sole radio network supplier to Virve, Finland's new public safety network.

A world first

Valtra and Elisa have developed the first remote control tractor in the world. The tractor was operated the first time in spring 2020, and this autumn it is being tested at an airport.

“It took just 10 weeks from our initial contact to develop a fully functioning remote control tractor. This reflects not only the speed of our two companies, but also the readiness of current technology for this kind of project,” says Pentikäinen.

At the airport, the remote control system has been fitted to a new Valtra T234 Direct tractor, but in principle it could have been fitted to any new Valtra. Similarly, a Kesla forestry grapple was fitted to the tractor’s front linkage to pick up items, but in principle the remote control system can be used with any implement attached to the tractor.

The use of unmanned vehicles for dangerous tasks is being explored by countries around the world.

“Our remote control tractor is still a prototype, but a fully functioning one. Hundreds of Valtra tractors are already used by defence forces in different countries, and Valtra tractors are also used at five Finnish airports, so the remote control tractor is a natural development for using tractors for these tasks,” says Tommi Malinen, Director, Key Accounts and Strategy, at Valtra.

Automated steering has been available as a factory-fitted option on Valtra tractors for the past 15 years already. By combining automated steering with remote control and other smart farming technologies, such as U-Pilot headland management, it is possible in the very near future to develop a tractor that can operate completely autonomously, both at airports and on fields.