High-Tech Equipment and Processes Transform Farming
Today’s precision farming techniques rely on interconnect technologies.
Although agriculture is the world’s oldest and most essential industry, it’s been completely transformed in recent years by modern technologies, many of which depend on electronics. Electronics now play a role in virtually every step of the agriculture process, from weather monitoring to irrigation to storage of the final harvest. In addition to food crops, wind energy is just one of the new crops that interconnects have helped make possible and profitable. New processes have made it possible to feed a growing global population a more diverse menu of foods, available year-round and at lower prices. Farming is still an unpredictable venture, but technology is bringing new precision and success to the industry.
One of the most important advances in the agricultural industry has been the increased use of global positioning systems (GPS). The most popular uses of GPS in farming are as a navigation aid, in equipment retrieval data, and for auto-guidance. A specific type of GPS — differential global positioning systems (DGPS) — also allows farmers to break their fields into segmented units that can be individually managed to ensure optimum production from each.
Utilizing DGPS in one of these manners, farmers can extend their hours of operation, operate in times of poor visibility, use lower-skilled labor, and reduce skips and overlaps, which saves both time and fuel. The ability to precisely guide the tractor over the same area time after time also limits soil compaction from equipment. By combining DGPS with geo-referenced yield maps, a farmer can also vary the amount of fertilizer and pesticides they apply, which can save money and reduce greenhouse gases, and determine yields for optimum crop rotation.
What’s great for the electronics industry and interconnect manufacturers is that each of these GPS and DGPS units and their corresponding antennas is equipped with a variety of connectors. What’s great for farmers is that, due to the widespread use of GPS in other industries, the price of installing these systems has dropped substantially, enabling their use in even small-enterprise farms.
Connectors used on DGPS units geared towards agricultural applications include:
- USB connectors: Generally USB 2.0 in standard or environmentally-sealed housings
- RS232 connectors: Nine-pin D-Subminiatures
- RF connectors: SMA and TNC connectors
- PCB connectors: Board-to-board and memory modules
- Wire-to-wire connectors
One major concern in the agricultural market has been the ability to easily connect implements manufactured by several different companies without having to swap out harnesses and monitors and install additional control boxes. This concern is addressed by the ISO 11783 standard. Commonly known as ISOBUS, ISO 11783 specifies a method of interoperability between electronics systems on agricultural and forestry equipment. If a tractor and an implement, such as a sprayer or combine, are both compatible with ISO 11783, the ISOBUS system allows the electronic control units (ECUs) of the tractor and the implement to communicate and share information via a CAN bus, as if they were one machine.
This virtual ability to become one machine eliminates the need for multiple control boxes and an array of different connectors, adaptors, and harnesses through the use of a virtual terminal that is capable of controlling every ISOBUS-compatible implement, regardless of its manufacturer. Although ISO 11783 has been adopted by almost every agricultural equipment manufacturer in Europe, ISO 11783 has only recently become standard on agricultural equipment produced in the United States.
Ryan Mulligan, business development manager and former marketing manager for ISOBUS products at Powell Electronics, which is headquartered in New Jersey, said that Powell has “been shipping production quantities of ISO-11783-certified connectors into Europe since 2006” — or for nearly 12 years now. Deutsch Group SAS, which was founded in California in the late 1930s and acquired by TE Connectivity in April of 2012, was one of the first connector manufacturers to be certified to the standard, and has been supplying production quantities of ISO-11783-certified products to European manufacturers of agricultural tractors and implements since 2002.
In addition to providing plug-and-play capabilities, ISOBUS can also be connected to a GPS unit or to monitoring and control modules, allowing farmers to not only utilize navigation aids, but to monitor and control activities like seed and fertilizer output as well.
Based on CAN bus, which has also been used in the agricultural industry for many years, the ISOBUS communication protocol is compatible with SAE J1939-11 and -13, the worldwide serial data bus communications standards for truck, bus, off-road, construction, and marine vehicles. Like other ISO specifications, ISO 11783 specifies:
- Physical characteristics
- Serial data network (CAN2.0B) for control and communications
- Data handling and file transfer
- Minimum functionality of certain devices on the network
The physical characteristics specify an ISO box and three different connector pairs, all with different functions. ISO boxes, referred to as box interfaces, enable the transmission of signals between farm equipment like tractors and implements. The first of the three connectors is a nine-pin circular connector offered by manufacturers including TE Connectivity and Powell. These interfaces are mounted on the outside rear-end of tractors and other agricultural equipment and contain a proprietary printed circuit board (PCB) that splits the nine-pin input into two four-position connectors located internal to the tractor. ISO boxes mate with a nine-pin plug whose main feature is a breakaway function that prevents damage to both the equipment and implement in case of an accidental drive-away disconnect.
The second of the three connectors is the bus extension (in-cab) connector. This connector allows additional ISOBUS equipment to be added to the existing bus system and extends the bus signal lines of the implement bus within the farm equipment. It also enables the attachment of the virtual terminal.
The last of the three ISO box connectors is the diagnostic connector, which is compatible with SAEJ1939-13, a nine-pin circular connector generally located in an easily accessible area in the cab area of equipment like tractors. This connector provides the link between the various safety-critical and non-critical sub-systems, including: engine, braking, transmission, emission, and tracking systems, data loggers, and the testing equipment needed to facilitate troubleshooting and maintenance of the ISO network.
Agricultural robots are another area of farming in which electronics play a vital role. Although a fairly new technology, these robots are quickly becoming commonplace. Geared towards the most labor-intensive jobs with the highest use of temporary employees, performing jobs like pruning, weeding, pesticide spraying, watering, and harvesting, robots are already working in fields across the country. Although much of the research and development of robots for agricultural use has been done in conjunction with major universities, several companies have produced prototypes that are now in use or being field-tested. One such company is Vision Robotics Corporation.
Based in San Diego, Vision Robotics has developed the Intelligent Robotic Vineyard Pruner, which uses stereoscopic scanning cameras to scan entire grapevines and multiple arms capable of performing precision cuts at a speed of eight feet per minute. With the ability to operate day and night and in mildly inclement weather, it is estimated that one robot can prune an acre in 4.4 hours (depending on vine density), saving producers more than 50% of the cost for manual trimming. In addition to the Intelligent Robotic Vineyard Pruner, Vision Robotics also developed robots especially designed to harvest apples and oranges.
The increasing use of robots in the agricultural industry creates increased demand for the many connectors required to imbue these multi-armed, multi-functional agricultural robots with their various capabilities and ensure that they operate effectively. For example, connectors including small industrial circular and rectangular connectors, I/O connectors, RF connectors, telecom connectors, and PCB connectors are required to interface with the multiple stereoscopic scanning cameras provide signal and power to the arms, and collect, transmit, and receive data.
Farm equipment ranging from GPS to tractors to robots and beyond is increasingly reliant upon an abundance of connectors, including: circular and rectangular connectors to deliver power and signal, RF connectors to relay information, and PCB connectors, terminal blocks, and insulated and non-insulated terminals to execute a multitude of other functions. As a result, in the future, farmers may even be able to run an entire farm from the comfort of their office.