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The combine technology that helps gather the world’s grain

Combine harvester technology has come a long way since the first machine was introduced in 1843 and by the 2030s, farmers could have autonomous combines running through the night on controlled traffic tramlines. Future Farming takes a look at historical and potential developments.

Electronic aids and information systems on combines have come a long way since a British company introduced the agricultural industry’s first grain-loss monitor in the late 1960s.

Combine electronics timeline

Hover over the years in the image below for more information or enlarge it here.

Today, highly sophisticated guidance and automated control and adjustment systems are close to making the autonomous harvester a reality.

The installation of grain-loss sensors and a small display in the combine cab paved the way for increasingly sophisticated – and useful – in-cab data displays to support the operator’s own skills.

Interactive display

  • In the 1970s, Danish combine manufacturer Dronningborg introduced the first interactive display – complete with printer – enabling the operator to monitor the well-being of key internal drive components.
  • The DaniaVision system – renamed DataVision after Massey Ferguson acquired the company – also brought default settings for the cleaning and other systems to suit different crops and harvesting conditions.
  • The 1980s brought the first on-board yield recording technologies, designed to give growers a more accurate account of crop performance field by field.
  • Automatic header height and levelling control is now taken for granted, but when introduced in the 1990s, this technology relieved combine operators of a significant workload and released brain power that could be deployed elsewhere.
The combine technology that helps gather the world’s grain

Farmer in tractor cab Princess Anne, MD. Photo: Blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

Yield monitors

  • In the same decade, Massey Ferguson sparked the precision farming revolution by bringing together yield recording and satellite positioning technologies. This enabled farmers to see yield variation within fields and subsequently take measures to raise average yield and/or cut input costs.
  • Subsequent electronic developments continued to help the operator, with responsibility for steering an accurate course removed by the 1990s introduction by Claas of Laser Pilot auto-steer, which scans the edge of a standing crop.
  • This was a precursor to satellite-based guidance and auto steering, which enables combines to accurately open up crops in perfectly parallel ‘lands’ and so minimise unproductive short-work.
  • In the following decade, systems such as New Holland’s IntelliCruise brought automatic speed control in crops of varying density by measuring the load on the elevator driveline or the threshing drum to optimise throughput.

See also: Simple guide to combine telematics and performance monitoring

Telematics launched

  • The introduction of telematics in the early years of the new millennium provides real-time data collection for machine and harvesting efficiency management and was a first step towards the universally ‘connected farm’ concept.
  • In the current decade, support resources such as John Deere’s JDLink telematics with Remote Display Access enables farm managers and dealers to remotely assist operators with machine set-up, performance optimisation and troubleshooting as if they were in the cab.
  • Wireless data transfer eliminates the potential pitfalls of manual transfer of collected data to computer- or cloud-based farm management systems and remote exchange of set-up data.
  • At an operation level, there are a number of technologies that aim to extract greater throughput from harvesters that cannot get much bigger than they are today, including automatic blockage avoidance, interactive settings advice and fully automatic settings adjustment.

The future

Industry harvester experts speculate future technologies already showcased, such as the Case IH’s V2V synchronised combine and grain cart guidance, will be joined by more sophisticated automatic controls.

In addition, greater use of on-board grain analysis could help better inform storage and crop marketing decisions on farm.

But whatever new combine technologies are approaching, they need to add value by raising output, reducing costs or providing useful management data, and they must be simple to use in the frenetic rush of harvest.

2030 vision for combine harvesting
–  Increased electronic sensing to monitor harvester load, grain sample, fuel consumption and grain losses to take away the guesswork in making set-up changes while on the move
–  Synchronised combine and grain cart GPS guidance to reduce driver stress and workload, and minimise risk of tractor/header collisions
–  Smarter on-board data collection and cloud-based processing will automatically generate yield and quality maps by location, crop type, crop condition and variety for more informed decision making-  Autonomous grain cart operation to reduce labour costs, with predictive technology getting it to the right place at the right time for combine offloading
–  On-board crop scanner detects patches of prominent weeds (for example, grasses, thistles) for subsequent patch herbicide spraying
–  Grain harvesting management system will supply crop data gathered on combine to automatically regulate drying, handling and storage system
–  Autonomous combines will work through the night on controlled traffic tramlines, adjusting to harvesting conditions and stockpiling grain ready for haulage to store at the start of a new dayThe combine technology that helps gather the world’s grain