Rethinking the planter unit
INTERLINKED: Dawn Equipment has created a system where sensors and interconnected electronics allow for higher precision in each planter row unit.

Rethinking the planter unit

Dawn Equipment innovates the tech to improve seed placement on any planter.

There's nothing quite like a discussion with inventors and innovators enthusiastic about the work they're doing. That happened recently in a call with two key players at Dawn Equipment - Joe Bassett and Rodney Arthur. And with their planter unit innovations, many might say they have plenty to be enthusiastic about.

Dawn Equipment, which started as an innovator in residue management and no-till farming a couple decades ago, hasn't stopped bringing out new ideas. The company has engaged a wide range of technologies, but as Bassett and Arthur talked during our call, it's clear this latest innovation has wide-reaching opportunity for the company and its farmer-customers.

So how about a front-to-back rethink of the planter row unit that incorporates new electronic and hydraulic controls that manage depth control, down pressure and to maximize the effectiveness of your planter? That's what Dawn Equipment is bringing to market in limited form for 2018.

This is a company that has built a reputation working in no-till, so they know the challenges of planting into high residues. One is the ability to make on-the-go changes to depth and pressure based on conditions. The second is cutting through those residues to make sure there is seed-to-soil contact. The latter is simple with variable depth residue removal tools the company has long offered, but on the row unit is where there's some real excitement.

"We're offering the first digital hydraulic down pressure system," says Joe Bassett, Dawn Equipment engineer. "We've made this so it has an expandable manifold and controller on the row unit."

He explained that with that design you can start with a hydraulic down pressure unit but expand it to include electronic controls later, allowing you to change as you grow with the system, he said. But the system goes beyond that with an active depth control module (you can start with or add later), providing optimum depth in any conditions.

Bassett explained that the firming wheel has a sensor at the bottom of the furrow that provides information for the depth control system to increase or decrease depth in real time based on what's happening right at the soil. The down pressure system is also linked electronically to this sensor, so in essence the row unit is "talking to the furrow" which allows the row unit to provide the most accurate seed placement based on current conditions in real time.

"As the conditions change and the ground gets harder or softer, you're getting the same amount of soil on top of the seed," Bassett said.

Putting data to work

And this is just a start. Arthur, who works with Bassett on design and engineering at Dawn, envisions a time when seed may have metadata included that you enter into a monitor/controller for the planter. A barcode on the bulk box could offer optimum setup for that planter before you hit the field.

"The entire planter could configure itself for optimum settings for that seed," he said. "During planting, changes in the field would be adjusted for with the monitoring and control systems." This real-time adjustment overcomes in-field variances in soil moisture, residues and other factors that can impact seed-to-soil contact.

Arthur noted that the approach here is on the road to full autonomy. That the operator will not have to get out of the seat to adjust planting depth because conditions change. Or the farmer can set optimum planting for an operator, and let the planter adjust to conditions. This allows less-experienced operators to do a better job of planting.

To make this happen, Bassett and Arthur had to come up with a responsive down-pressure system that is very different from any used before. "Instead of a single pressure control valve, we're using two open and close valves, and pulsing bits of oil in and out," Arthur explained. "This is low-energy, high-speed spool valve technology, with a digital matching valve, that has never been on the market before."

He said this design creates a very responsive system for quick changes. In fact, those valves have a 6 millisecond response time. And they're claiming a target accuracy within 10 pounds with down pressure. The design also assures there is proper pressure so row units don't bounce in the field, and never have a situation where seed ends up being dropped on top of the soil.

Bassett sums up the results of this row-unit rethink: "All things that a human hand would have touched on the planter is automatically controllable. We're really paving the way for an automated planter."

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