A Harvest Factory on Wheels

March 19, 2016 02:25 AM

Turf cutting technology makes wide footprint

A driver is driving a robot. Make that 30 robots. A turf harvester is running, cutting and stacking with unprecedented efficiency as 30 separate control loops run simultaneously. It’s not quite a sans operator machine, but the process is remarkably close to total automation. The Internet of Things (IoT), a blend of sensors, software and network connectivity, is stirring up farmland dust.

FireFly Equipment’s new ProSlab 155 turf harvester is at the vanguard of agricultural IoT application, aimed at increased precision and efficiency. The leap in efficiency, with less fuel consumption and faster harvest speeds, isn’t limited to turf growers. The technology has implications for the entire agricultural equipment industry, says Nick Butler, senior group manager, National Instruments (NI).

FireFly partnered with NI to build a smart machine that functions like a factory on wheels. At the heart is NI’s CompactRIO platform—rugged hardware with embedded processors, synced with sensors, actuators, drives and motors. Simply, the marriage of software and hardware. “The amount of synchronization of performance is incredible,” Butler says.

Style of turf harvesting varies by market, soil and grass. Turf can be rolled in 100' stretches for use on ballfields or smaller rolls as needed. However, some grasses are too fragile or stiff for adequate rolling. Most often, turf is cut in flat slabs. Prior to the ProSlab 155, slab harvesting was done with manual machines and laborers stacking slabs, or automated stacking machines. Both means are inefficient.

FireFly wanted to improve the quality and speed of stacking, and make the machine adaptable to a range of soil and grass varieties. 

“Our customers don’t care about changes for the sake of technology; they want simplicity, reliability and flexibility,” says Steve Aposhian, president and chief engineer of FireFly. “Our new machine uses incredibly sophisticated technology to provide real benefits, yet is easy to use.”

A slab harvester goes through millions of stacker cycles, and without smooth control, durability issues continuously surface. 

The ProSlab 155 relies on electric servomotors to control the stacking mechanism, a vast improvement over the difficulties of hydraulics. “Not only can we implement high-performance servomotors, but thanks to NI, it’s easy to marry them to traditional controls and sensors,” Aposhian says.

The new CompactRIO controlled machine harvests up to 10,000 sq. ft. per hour. Previous automated machines cut between 7,000 and 8,000 sq. ft. per hour, Aposhian says. 

In addition, fuel use is 1.9 to 2.1 gal. per hour, compared with 4.9 to 5.5 gal. per hour for other machines. 

“CompactRIO controls everything from hydraulic valves and drive train to cutters and stackers, and enables huge jumps in harvest speed and fuel savings,” Butler says. “This is one of the first, if not the first, agricultural IoT application. There’s nothing out there with this level of autonomy.”

The implications of ProSlab 155 technology reach far beyond turf production. “There’s no reason this technology can’t be put in all types of farm vehicles, whether as monitoring to predict failures or controlling equipment or both,” Butler says. 

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