Experimental setup of the image acquisition system. Credit: University of Illinois
Experimental setup of the image acquisition system.

New machine evaluates soybean quality at harvest

Machine automates process, evaluating soybean quality on the fly without interrupting harvest.

When a field of soybeans is ready to harvest, speed is of the essence, but harvesting grinds to a halt every time the combine operator has to climb down out of the cab to manually check for quality — whole, un-split beans without stray husk material.

Researchers from Kyoto University and the University of Illinois recently developed a machine to automate the process, evaluating bean quality on the fly, so harvesting can go on uninterrupted.

"The main objective was to develop an efficient, compact, on-board quality monitoring system to evaluate soybeans as they are harvested, providing the combine operator with real-time grain quality information," Md Abdul Momin, lead scientist on the project, said.

Momin explained that when the threshing speed is too high, soybeans can split or break as they are harvested. This is undesirable, because whole beans are considered to be higher quality and bring a higher price.

"Without this machine, operators need to periodically stop threshing and manually check the tank to evaluate the quality and make adjustments," Momin said. "With this machine, operators can look at a screen and make adjustments as they go, without stopping."

The machine, which includes a high-speed camera, is mounted inside the tank of the harvester. It takes images of the beans as they pass by, and a computer program analyzes the beans in real time. One key is that it is a double-imaging system; it uses a combination of both front and back lighting so the camera can see the complete shape of the beans, making it possible to identify those that are truly split.

Momin tested the system first in the laboratory and then in field conditions. A Japanese company currently has the prototype and is working to develop a higher-speed camera and, ultimately, to produce the machine.

"The same system can be used in the processing industry with a $100 web camera, making it very affordable," Momin said. "Mounting it inside of the combine is more ambitious because it needs a super high-speed camera to evaluate the soybeans as they pass rapidly by."

Momin said growers in Japan are eager to use this new technology to evaluate soybeans during harvest, believing it will improve the process by doing much of the sorting and cleaning of the soybeans before they reach the processing plant.

The study, "Machine Vision Based Soybean Quality Evaluation," was published in Computers & Electronics in Agriculture.

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