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Sonar sensors assist in harvesting root crops.

Sonar Sensors Shine at Harvest

By necessity, farmers are fixers, solvers and constant innovators. Day in and day out, they analyze their farms’ needs, innovate solutions to countless challenges, and dream up ways to make their operations better. So, while I’m always impressed, I’m never surprised when a producer takes an existing technology and sees its value in an entirely new way. Such is the case with sonar sensors, originally designed to control boom height on sprayers.

About a decade ago, creative farmers began to realize that, with some modification and a slightly different configuration, sonar sensors could be repurposed to automatically control both digging depth during potato harvest and boom height control during truck loading. By removing the need for a harvester operator to constantly watch and manually adjust digging depth and boom height, the technology improves convenience, decreases tuber damage (especially by less experienced harvester operators) and improves harvest efficiency. In response, a handful of companies have now tweaked the technology to make it best suit multiple uses.

Automatic digging depth control ensures the harvester neither digs too deep (which dredges up excess soil and rock and decreases ground speed), nor too shallow (which chops into tubers and one’s bottom line).  Automatic boom height control ensures potatoes are neither dropped from too great a height into the truck, and prevents the boom itself from crushing and damaging tubers in the truck. Both systems benefit the operator, allowing the person to relax a little and give additional attention to other aspects of the harvester and the field. Boom height control can be retrofitted to virtually any potato harvester. Digging depth control lends itself to many, but not all, harvesters.

If your first reaction is to point out that any decent operator of a potato harvester can keep a manual eye on digging depth and boom height, reconsider. Autosteer gained traction slowly when it was first introduced because many growers said, “Why would I spend money on a guidance system when I’ve been driving straight all my life?” Today, of course, autosteer is widely accepted, credited with improving convenience, eliminating error, increasing workable acres and maximizing productivity.

Too, as farms grow ever bigger and require increasing numbers of staff, inexperienced seasonal workers are an increasing reality for many operations. Automating functions to eliminate the possibility of operator error could pay enormous returns.

The most creative producers are already taking sonar sensor technology a step further: dual-purposing a depth control kit from a fall harvester to a spring planter. That’s exactly how innovation and advancement happens: out of the blue, we’ll get a call from a producer saying “You know what I just did?!” And then that’s that: a whole new opportunity opens up because the farmer saw a use that no one else saw. At the end of the day, it’s farmers who deserve all the credit for moving this industry forward.

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