Autonomous baler handles tedious part of job

Vermeer's robotic bale-mover prototype handles up to three bales.  |  Vermeer photo

Collecting bales that are spread out across large fields is an onerous job, which is why Vermeer has developed an autonomous bale mover.

“We saw a need out there starting with biomass, where we needed to pick up a bunch of corn stalk bales and put them to the edge of the field,” said Kent Thompson, forage innovations engineering manager at Vermeer.

“We thought that’s a job where it’s hard to find labour to do that because it’s kind of a seasonal thing, and so this machine seems like a potentially viable solution for that.”

The bale mover can pick up to three bales, one at a time, unless the bales are in a row then it can load all three at the same time.

The robot uses a track system to pulls the bales up onto its rack, which is built with a slight angle.

“The machine knows exactly where the bale is, so it knows when to turn those tracks on. It’ll drive up to the bale and it won’t turn the track on until it’s right where it needs to be, and when the ground drive is helping move the bale up,” Thompson said.

“You’ll notice that there’s very little damage on the bales and the net wrap.”

He said designing the machine so that it causes little damage to the bales or bale wrap was one of the most difficult challenges engineers had to deal with.

A user interface is used to create field boundaries on Google Maps, or a similar app, and operators also input where to create the bale stacks.

“It will automatically calculate what we call a scour pattern, a kind of a back-and-forth pattern to make sure we see the entire field or cover the entire field. It’s based on the field of view of the sensors,” Thompson said.

The robot will begin by moving the bales closest to where the stack is to be made, to get the bales out of the way.

Once it has a full rack of three bales it moves where it was told to make a stack, which is usually on the edge of the field.

The robot then autonomously unloads the bales and then goes back into the same scour pattern.

Operators input how many bales they want in each row, and how close multiple rows will be to each other if multiple rows are made.

GPS is used on the machine to make sure it doesn’t stray outside of the field boundaries, but the GPS location of the bales is not needed.

“What’s kind of nice about not having to know the prior pass data, is you can go into any field without getting prior information from the baler or whatever the case may be,” Thompson said.

“Bales don’t always drop in the exact spot, so this way we just go in there and find them no matter where they’re at.”

He said the robot is still a prototype and they are working on the best sensor configuration to use.

So far, it uses a rotating multi-scan lidar, which enables the robot to identify the orientation of the bales.

There are also lidar sensors located on the side of the machine to increase its safety.

“Basically, if you break that (laser) field, it tries to drive away from you a little bit and or it slows down and stops,” Thompson said.

The robot can be controlled with a remote for loading and unloading, or for moving around the yard and shop.

The robotic bale mover is designed to run at about five mph.

“The intent is to continually pick up throughout the day and night. The productivity we get is based on longer time duration, because we don’t need a person out there running it,” Thompson said.

He said the Vermeer design team is working on a system that will enable the robot to send alerts if it gets into trouble and allow operators to log on to it to check its status.

The prototype has a hydrostatic drivetrain powered by a 74-horsepower engine, however Thompson said it’s overpowered and future versions will likely have a smaller engine.

Similar to custom baling operations, he said there may be an opportunity for business to use this robotic bale mover in a custom bale moving business.

Vermeer does not have a timeline when the robot will be on the market.

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