Imagine a fleet of harvesters controllable by a single technician or a series of sensors allowing autonomous harvesters to roam fields unaccompanied. A few short years ago these may have seemed like far-fetched ideas, but notions like these are increasingly becoming plausible solutions to problems in agribusiness.
And since the late-sixties, Ramsay Highlander has been pushing the boundaries of ag tech, producing solutions to improve efficiency in fields across the United States and throughout the world. From its trademark, self-propelled Highlander Harvesting Aids to custom, high-tech Self Propelled Mechanical Harvesters that cut leafy greens with water jets and autonomous harvesters controllable from an iPhone, the company has continually been at the forefront of innovation in our industry.
“We’re a second-generation family-owned company. We started off as a little machine shop in 1969, and that evolved into building some self-propelled and three-point harvest aids and specialized self-propelled in-field packing machines; that’s how we started,” Frank Maconachy, President and CEO of Ramsay Highlander, tells me. “I came onboard with the company back in 1991. My father-in-law wanted to retire so he said, ‘Come look at this business and take it over, and let me go hunting and fishing for the rest of my days.’ My wife and I did a stock purchase of the company in the early 1990s, and we’ve owned it ever since.”
For more than 27 years, Frank has been heading the company and working with its customers to develop the best possible products, services, and solutions to meet the changing needs of agribusiness. One such ag tech solution is the recently-developed water knife-wielding automated romaine harvester patented by Frank Maconachy in 2007 and exclusively developed by Ramsay Highlander, Inc. In 2009, Taylor Farms was one of the first companies to purchase the water jet harvesting machine and later ordered more machines, as did other companies, from Ramsay Highlander.
It takes a collaboration of engineering minds from different disciplines...to come together and work on producing a solution. And we’ve got that team built here with Ramsay and our partners.
– Frank Maconachy, President and CEO, Ramsay Highlander Inc.
“I felt we had to come up with a better system to cut the bigger leafy greens such as iceberg and romaine,” Frank explains. “It was one of those middle-of-the-night thoughts—why don’t we cut it with a water jet? We use water to cut steel. Bakeries use it to cut the frozen cakes you buy. The chicken industry uses it to cut chickens. Why not just address the seed line and have the machine mechanically follow the contour of the bed so we can direct the water knife to cut at angles going down the rows and straight across the bed-top when it’s level?” So Frank and his team of engineers at Ramsay Highlander went to work on designing the machine, and once he and his team came up with the machine configuration, Frank filed for a patent on the new technology.
After Taylor Farms approached Ramsay Highlander to produce a bandsaw-based system to better contour beds as it cut leafy greens, Frank saw the opportunity to introduce his patented water-jet-cutting harvester to Taylor Farms and prove to them this technology was better and would solve the company’s problem. The result was both a better contouring device and a means of better keeping cut greens fresh.
“We did tests in Yuma with a prototype, and I knew that the physics of cutting lettuce with water would basically reduce the bleeding that turns the butt of a head of lettuce brown or pink. I knew that those physics would be there, and that would be a big plus,” says Frank. “We gathered up romaine heads that we cut in the field and stacked them up, and I took a picture of them, and you could see; there was no significant milking, and cut butts of the romaine lettuce weren’t turning pink yet, even after they were sitting in the field at 85-degree temperature in Yuma for about 30 minutes. That’s a huge thing on top of being able to do the cut.”
Now, Frank says, the company is taking on new challenges, working on automated solutions to harvesting, remotely-controlled means of operating multiple harvesters from a single iPhone, and ways of eliminating hydraulic oil from fields for greater food safety.
This last solution is well underway, with an automated, all-electronic harvester set to hit fields in a trial capacity this summer. With regulations and food safety guidelines getting stiffer, it makes sense to get rid of the hydraulics and diesel on the machines.
“We’re getting there. This particular grower that wants the machine has thrown us a curveball; he wants the machine to go at three inches per second at harvest speed. And in using gear drives we can get down to that, but we have efficiency issues with the electric motor. So we’re working through that to develop an electric motor that can spin properly at the right efficiency to give us the output needed, to give us the wheel drive with the torque required, to push a machine through the field in the mud,” Frank explains. “We’re going to have robotics doing the picking on these machines. We’re ready to build the first alpha unit, and we’ll probably have something out late this summer for our alpha phase of testing. Then we’ll work through the nuances that you discover with these things.”
And with another current project, Ramsay Highlander is working on pairing state-of-the-art sensor technology with the latest advances in controllability to optimize efficiency and improve the quality of produce.
“We recently started testing a new lidar system for self-guidance. It’s a solid state lidar system; now instead of having four of these lidars reading and coordinating, we can do it with just one,” says Frank. “And we’ve coupled that with another type of radar system that follows the machine for safety reasons. As far as controllability, we can outfit the machine with everything necessary for a GSM network system, so we can run it remotely through software—from an iPhone or iPad. You can have one guy drive four of these harvesters onto the field. And with a wireless mesh network (WMN) system between the machines, they talk to each other, so they know where each one is going through the field. They won’t run into each other; they know that this one has covered this path, and they’ll be programmed to go through these specific passes.”
With labor issues becoming increasingly problematic, Frank tells me, Ramsay Highlander will be at the forefront of an increasingly automated harvesting process.
“Robotics is coming for harvesters. It’s been a long process,” surmises Frank. “We’ve had a few companies make claims and try to do it on their own, but they’re not making headway. It takes a collaboration of engineering minds from different disciplines—a whole group of people to make this stuff happen. We need a roboticist; we need electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic engineers—a gamut of people in these disciplines to come together and work on producing a solution. And we’ve got that team built here with Ramsay and our partners.”
One can rest assured knowing that firms like Ramsay Highlander are up to addressing challenges to the future of agribusiness.