Vermeer Concept Targets Autonomous Baling

Lidar sensors help automate baling processes, as virtual testing increases for validation.

Vermeer’s autonomous Bale Hawk concept picks up and stacks three bales. (Vermeer)

Vermeer Corp. is expanding the off-highway industry’s push to remove drivers, bringing autonomous operations to the arduous task of retrieving baled hay with a concept vehicle that carries up to three bales. The Pella, Iowa-based manufacturer is further increasing its digital footprint with three more products: a baling system that automates driving, a predictive maintenance sensor for bearings and an app that simplifies billing for agricultural service providers.

A lidar-based guidance system lets baler operators focus on tasks other than steering. (Vermeer)

The new products and concepts come from Vermeer’s Forage Innovations Group, which explores next-generation technologies. Lidar is a mainstay in the two autonomous baling systems, guiding vehicles through fields to complete different tasks related to hay production. The bale-mover concept, dubbed Bale Hawk, navigates around the field autonomously, spotting bales, picking them up and moving them to a predetermined location.

“This machine helps save labor time and associated costs by eliminating the manual step of moving bales,” said Kent Thompson, Vermeer’s research and development manager. “The autonomous bale mover senses where it is relative to a bale, allowing it to plan a route to pick up that bale. Today, it can pick up three bales at a time before delivering and unloading them to a predetermined location.”

Lidar meets detection needs

A small screen mounted in cabs shows bearing temperatures, alerting operators when failures may be imminent. (Vermeer)

System designers initially planned to use stereo cameras to spot bales and move in to retrieve them, but that machine-vision approach fell short. Instead, they turned to lidar, which augments cameras by sending out pulses that bounce off obstructions and provide more information on distance. Four modules are currently being employed on the Bale Hawk.

“We use a Velodyne multi-plane lidar on the front to get a point cloud that lets us pinpoint the location of bales,” Thompson said. “Three Sick single-plane lidars on the sides are for detecting anything that might be in the way.” Those lidar sensors have moving components, which makes them larger than solid-state units touted by a number of lidar suppliers. However, lidar suppliers are not yet shipping solid-state devices that meet off-highway requirements, so electromechanical modules are being used.

Autonomous bale pickup was deemed a viable design goal because retrieving bales in large fields that may have hundreds of bales scattered about is a tedious, boring job. Finding bales and moving up to them is a task that requires both a powerful and a deft touch.

Even though bales can weigh from 1,000 to 1,800 lb (454 to 816 kg), they still need to be handled with care. Improper handling can damage bindings, causing breaks that lead to lost material. Thompson noted that design goals included compact size, a challenge that was made slightly easier because speed is not a major factor. “We wanted the machine to be nimble, not to be intimidating,” Thompson said. “We have the benefit of time; we don’t need to go fast. It’s nowhere near moving at passenger-car speeds.”

Like most groups working on autonomous vehicles, Forage Innovations looked outside for help in the complex task of automating movement. Vermeer partnered with Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to gain expertise in areas such as locating bales and determining how to approach them. The partners worked persistently for a couple of years, but Vermeer’s team needed to shift its focus to another product. Once that program was completed, they resumed work and quickly finished the Bale Hawk concept vehicle that’s now being shipped to a few select customers.

The move to autonomy is causing design teams throughout the transportation industry to change the way they test equipment. There is an almost infinite number of variables that must be explored when human drivers are not in control. That makes physical testing for all scenarios nearly impossible, so Vermeer is moving to do more virtual testing. “We’re doing a lot of field testing now because we’re good at that, but we’re working towards doing more with simulations,” Thompson said. “The percentage of our testing that’s done with simulation is going up.”

Windrow guidance system

The Bale Hawk may eventually be paired with another system arising from research by Forage Innovations. Vermeer is addressing baling with a windrow guidance system that can be installed on the Vermeer ZR5-1200 self-propelled baler. Like the Bale Hawk, this system also uses lidar sensors to track the windrow and guide the machine’s automatic steering system.

Lidar spots windrows of mown hay and tracks them, freeing the operator from some of the tiring tasks associated with hay baling. Operators do not have to steer, allowing them to focus on other aspects of baling so optimal bale quality can be achieved. This module is nearing production, but Thompson did not set a timeline for its introduction.

Planning ahead

Vermeer also is working up a predictive diagnostic system that will help operators minimize downtime. It’s designed to be mounted on the ZR5 baler, though it eventually can be extended to a range of vehicles. A wireless sensor module can be mounted near bearings, alerting operators when changes in the bearing’s operating temperature foretell failure. That lets them plan maintenance, avoiding the downtime that comes when bearings fail unexpectedly.

“The wireless sensor mounts can be bolted anywhere. It’s usually attached to the end of a shaft so it can monitor temperature and determine when it’s time for repairs,” Thompson said. “The thermistor sends the temperature to a display module that’s mounted in the cab. When the temperature gets to a certain threshold, the corresponding icon will turn yellow. At the next temperature level, it glows red.”

That module is currently being tested on baling equipment including the ZR5 and the Bale Hawk concept vehicle. Thompson noted that these vehicles have many critical bearings, typically as many as 16 to 18.

Apps in charge

Vermeer sees apps as an important element for programming and monitoring performance. At the outset of bale retrieval, a Google app can be used to set the parameters of the field and pinpoint where bales should be stacked. Using this approach instead of relying on GPS measurements makes it simpler for contractors to operate in fields they have not previously worked. Many farmers do not have GPS data for all their property, so using an app is a universal solution.

Vermeer also has developed an app, Forage Commander, that connects any Bluetooth device to the data gateway unit on the baler. This app provides real-time field stats that include bale weight, bale moisture and bales per hour, letting service providers quickly generate an invoice to email directly to the operator’s customer.

“This app is really designed for an operator who wants to better understand their productivity in the field or is looking for a more convenient tool to help manage their custom hay operation,” said Vermeer product manager Shawn Wang.