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337695

Operator-free haymakers

On the cusp of autonomous technology breakthroughs for making hay.

Here’s the dream: Autonomous robots make your hay. You just punch the buttons. That will be the reality in the near future, say the hay machine experts at New Holland America. 

Mark Lowery, director of commercial marketing, says anything that can be done autonomously in row crops can be done in hayfields. “You will see incremental progress toward more haymaking autonomy over the next three to five years,” he predicts. “Our work indicates we’ll have lots of exciting things to share.” Lowery breaks autonomous field operations into five steps, some of which are already in the hands of farmers. 

Machine guidance. This GPS-based feature has been in the New Holland product lineup for several years with its IntelliSteer system. It’s available on self-propelled windrowers to help speed the operation and alleviate operator fatigue.

Machine coordination.

This feature lets two machines communicate through advanced electronics. For instance, a baler can send crop condition information to the tractor operator and on-board computer. 

Operator assist.

This automation feature lets the baler control functions with minimal operator input. For instance, with New Holland’s IntelliBale technology, the baler tells the tractor to slow down or stop when desired bale size is reached. It autonomously ejects the bale and resumes operation, all without any operator actions. 

Supervised autonomy.

The machine or machines operate autonomously, but a person is on the machine or in the field to monitor. 

Full autonomy.

The ultimate dream: driverless technology working in the field without human supervision. It’s no-labor haymaking.

What’s Next?

The first three phases are here. Supervised and full autonomy are still being researched and tested at New Holland’s research farm in Pennsylvania and other test fields around the country, with that three- to five-year time frame in sight. 

Lowery lists three specific haymaking procedures the company thinks are ripe for supervised or full automation. 

Windrowers

New Holland offers factory-installed IntelliSteer and headland management automation on self-propelled windrowers. The next phase will use GPS, cameras, and sensors to let the machine drive itself. 

Balers

Unveiled recently on New Holland large square balers, Baler Automation uses a LiDAR sensor to scan the windrow in front of the tractor for density, volume, and direction. Input is then used to automatically control steering, forward speed, and baler settings to ensure the baler follows the windrow precisely. 

Bale handlers

Because this involves repetitive and fatiguing operations, it has potential for more autonomous operations, too. Driverless machines may soon accumulate and load bales.

“Haymaking has always been labor-intense. The problem farmers have is that it requires skilled labor to cut, rake, and bale,” Lowery says. “It’s hard to find that labor and what is driving a desire for more autonomy in field operations.”

Obviously, the economics will have to work before farmers add automation to their haymaking. “The technology is there, and we know it works,” he says. “But is it more cost-effective than having a driver in the tractor or windrower? That’s what we are learning. It might be cool technology, but that won’t sell if it doesn’t have a positive ROI.”

Get Ready for Autonomy

New Holland’s Mark Lowery lists three things you can do to prepare for more autonomous haymaking technology. 

First, be aware of new technology. “Talk to your equipment dealer. Ask him or her what’s out there that will let you cover more ground faster and with less operator fatigue,” he says. 

Second, get your equipment ready. You don’t have to buy the technology now, but are your machines compatible with autonomous operation? A good example of this, Lowery says, is that if you buy a new tractor, you should make sure it is compatible with ISOBUS Class 3 electronics — the wiring harness that connects the baler to the tractor. 

Third, talk to your equipment dealer about what you want or need in technology. “What are the pain points in your operation? Where can automation help you?” Lowery asks. “We see this as something we will work on together. Tell us what you need.”

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