The company is busy expanding its production facility and starting to build production units for delivery later in 2022.
Mobile Robot Guide: So what’s new with Monarch Tractor since our last conversation?
Praveen Penmetsa: Early in 2021, we announced that CNH Industrial (AKA Holland Tractor) came onboard as a minority investor in Monarch Tractor. Then in November 2021, Monarch entered into an exclusive, multi-year licensing agreement for electrification technologies with CNHI.
Basically, now CNHI has access through this license agreement and investment, and we get access to their distribution channels. At the World Ag Expo, we’re showing the Monarch Tractor in the New Holland booth.
With the early customers, we’ve learned a lot about what farmers expect from their equipment. For example, our tractor is rated for 70 HP, but because of the all-electric drive train, it has tremendous torque, more than a similarly rated diesel engine. As a result, some customers are pulling larger loads/implements than we anticipated. Therefore, we’ve had to upgrade the brakes to ensure that we can stop and control the load.
We’ve also upgraded some of our chassis componentry to make them more robust.
What are you doing on the software side of the controls and operation?
On the software side, we have gone through a whole iteration to make the tractor much easier to use. Our goal is to make the existing tractor easy to use and enable a new driver to be up to speed in two to three hours, and safely start using the autonomy in the tractor.
We’ve changed some of the controls, moved the location of the throttle pedal, and improved the overall ergonomics. All of this based on feedback from early customers.
We also upgraded and made some of our electronics components more robust. The screens are now completely sealed to survive the day-to-day rigors of operating in the field.
On the controls and software side, it’s now more controllable, more precise. When even with a driver on the tractor, we can control it down to millimeters of precision. You can move it at a millimeter a second kind of precision.
Also on the safety side and autonomy side, we have deployed a lot of driver safety/ADAS features. For example, a driver can’t intentionally drive into something. The safety controls are always watching the area around the tractor and it will come to an automatic stop if a crash is imminent. This is valuable for an inexperienced driver, and gives a field supervisor more options for who can operate the equipment.
What autonomy improvements have you made in the last six months?
When we showed you the tractor last year, the autonomy was a “train and repeat” type of autonomous control. Now, the tractor is capable of finding where the row starts by itself, without having to have been trained. The tractor knows where all the row heads are. This allows you to set up a process to goto a specific row head and start an operation. All of this is still in development but we have made a lot of good progress in this.
All of the new features will be available on the production tractors later this year.
The tractor includes a standard ISObus connector to allow communication with smart implements. This is in addition to the standard three point interface on the rear of the tractor.
We’re also expanding the control capabilities of interfacing with smart implements. This enables complete autonomous control of operations with an implement attached to the tractor.
Lastly, we now include the working envelope of a trailer or implement into the kinematics of the entire machine. Rear facing cameras onboard the tractor watch the movement of the trailer or implement, while the steering and controls of the tractor takes into account the dimensions of the trailer or implement. This prevents the tractor from driving the implement into or over something that’s not supposed to be there, like a barrel or a post.
The onboard cameras can identify the size of the trailer or implement in real-time and make the necessary kinematic changes without the need for any software parameter changes by the operator. This really reduces the need for the operator to be trained in all of the software setup onboard. Again, this is to reduce the overall operator training time and make the system easier to use.
What’s the plan for the rest of this year, going into full production?
We have a bunch of orders queued up already. We’re planning to start shipping production units in Q4, 2022. The other big thing that’s happened since we last talked is our early customers have already been approved for California Air Resource Board grants which means for our tractors are being subsidized to where it’s costing the farmers around $15,000 (after the grant). That makes it cheaper than a diesel tractor and is going a long way to reducing the market barriers for acceptance of this new technology.
This program is still active in California, and we’re working with potential customers to help them get the grant to help pay for the tractor.