Radio-controlled Mower Travels on 40-deg Slopes Under Solar Panels (1)

2019/10/07 14:52
Shinichi Kato, Nikkei BP Intelligence Group, CleanTech Labo

Major agricultural machine manufacturer Kubota Corporation has commercialized a radio-controlled grass cutter. The product features good performance on steep slopes, and stable grass cutting operations are possible on slopes up to 40° (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Machine stable on 40-degree slopes (source: Kubota)

It can move under solar panels to cut grass because the height is low at about 60 cm. Grass under the lower side of arrays (unit for fixing solar panels to mounting systems) needs to be cleared more than other areas at solar power plant sites, and the function to cut grass while moving under panels is the strength of the product.

The product is named "ARC-500." The suggested retail price is 997,920 yen (approx US$9,340, including 8% consumption tax), making it less than 1 million yen. Radio-controlled grass cutters are generally priced over 1 million yen, and many of such products made by foreign manufacturers are priced at more than 3 million yen.

The price of less than 1 million yen was determined considering the price range of riding-type grass cutters, according to the company. Among the riding-type grass cutters that are frequently used, the machine manufactured by Orec Co Ltd of Hirokawa Town, Fukuoka Prefecture, (See related article 1) is priced about 1 million yen while the machine manufactured by Chikusui Canycom Inc of Ukiha City, Fukuoka Prefecture (See related article 2) is priced at approximately 1.5 million yen. The price of "ARC-500" is lower than the prices of these machines.

The radio-controlled grass cutter featuring high performance on slopes was developed and commercialized aiming to solve business management issues that agricultural machine manufacturers face and contribute to eliminating issues that all farmers in Japan face.

The "business management issues that agricultural machine manufacturers face" refers to the shrinking trend of the domestic market of agricultural machines for rice cultivation. Rice is the main product of the manufacturers. While the number of machines for growing rice plants, which conventionally led the agricultural machine market, is decreasing, the number of high-value-added agricultural machines incorporating robots has been increasing.

High-value-added machines are high in price, but the sales volume of such machines is not as large as conventional machines for rice cultivation. To maintain and expand the business scale, it is ideal that agricultural machine manufacturers develop high-value-added machines for fields other than the agricultural field and expand the business to offset the shrinkage in the sale of machines for rice cultivation. It is expected that the radio-controlled grass cutter will be the first step of such development.

The product will be sold to a wide variety of fields including civil engineering, construction, landscaping, green zone management, leasing and solar power generation, not limiting the targets to farmers.

Improvement in the efficiency of cutting grass on slopes is also a big challenge for the agricultural field. About 40% of domestic farmland is in hilly areas, which are classified between plains and mountains. There are many slopes in hilly areas, but the progress is slow in the improvement of grass cutting efficiency.

Mechanization and efficiency optimization in the agricultural field naturally started from operations that directly improve productivity of agricultural products. By introducing agricultural machines represented by tractors, rice planters and combines, over the past 50 years, working hours for these operations were reduced by about 80%.

However, labor-saving and efficiency improvement have not been advancing rapidly for operations that do not directly affect the advance in productivity of farm products. The operation hours were reduced by only 45% during the same period. The radio-controlled grass cutter will contribute to the elimination of this major issue for the entire agricultural field, according to the company.

The total number of days required for grass cutting actually decreased for farmers that use the radio-controlled grass cutter. Farmers normally spend two hours a day for grass cutting, one hour in the early morning and one hour after sunset. Because the physical load during the two hours decreased, the farmers now can also cut grass also when they stop operations around noon, which led to the reduction in the total number of days spent for grass cutting.

The products are mainly sold via agricultural machine dealers and JA (Japan Agricultural Co-Operative), in the sales channels for conventional machines. Many companies in other fields have no contact with the sales channels for agricultural machines, and the method of expanding the sales channels will be the key for sales promotion.

As for the products that are known to have been sold for use at solar power plants since the release in March, power producers and O&M (operation and maintenance) companies collected the information and made inquiries about purchasing by themselves, according to the company. The companies are in Hokkaido, Fukushima and Okayama prefectures, and the company in Okayama, which purchased the product, operates 30 power plants in the prefecture.

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