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Speaking the same language

Imagine a world in which the PTO and hydraulic systems on tractors and equipment of differing brands are not compatible. No mix and match between green tractors and red planters. No flexibility. The forced brand loyalty might make Microsoft's alleged anticompetitive practices look trivial in comparison.

Fortunately for farmers, Bill Gates doesn't control the ag equipment industry (yet). So not only can we take standardized hydraulic and PTO systems for granted, we also can rest assured that standardization among manufacturers continues in the relatively new realm of data processing and electronic controls.

As the computer age extends to tractor and implement control systems, equipment manufacturers have realized the need to standardize the way tractors and implements communicate with each other. The process of standardizing electronic control systems across the ag equipment industry began in the early 1990s and continues today.

At present, manufacturers use two related standards called LBS+ and ISO11783. Though these standards share a common lineage and operate in much the same way, from a user's standpoint they are not largely compatible with one another. Fortunately, the industry's ultimate goal is for all companies to move to a finalized version of ISO11783 within the next few years.

Marvin Stone, an agricultural engineering professor at Oklahoma State University who has been involved in the electronic control standardization process, says manufacturers will tap ISO11783 to deliver better-performing products. “Not only will implements and tractors remain compatible, the existence of the standard should result in products that are more reliable and efficient,” Stone says. “Examples that already exist include the new John Deere combines or the new Cat Challenger. In addition, the ease with which equipment can be quickly diagnosed and repaired should improve.”

Stone says many of the improvements will be invisible on the surface. The more visible developments will occur when virtual terminals — and implements that are able to use them — begin to appear.

Human interface

The visual part of the control system, or virtual terminal (VT), looks like the typical display and control unit that sits on the right armrest of many modern tractors. The key difference is that it also controls implements, and each implement it controls thinks it has its own dedicated terminal. With a touch of a button, the operator selects a particular “terminal” within the VT to interact with, almost like turning to a page in an electronic book.

The implement doesn't actually have a dedicated terminal, but a part of the VT, which can display and control tractor functions as well as functions of multiple implements. As standardization evolves, this will include implements created by different manufacturers. To the operator, everything will be in one place, controlled by common naming conventions and operating logic, no matter what brand of implement is behind the tractor.

Stone says that as VTs become more common on tractors, they will become an important feature to consider when evaluating a tractor purchase. A VT will be the eyes, ears and nerve center of an integrated tractor and implement system. “As you evaluate the VT, you'll want to look for things such as a color screen that is easy to understand in sun or darkness, an adequate number of simultaneous implements supported, a good keyboard and strong dealer support. The dealer should be knowledgeable about the system and have access to a good local expert,” Stone says.

You might hear the terms “hard keys” and “soft keys” when listening to someone talk about a VT. Stone explains that hard keys are physical buttons on the terminal with a fixed definition (escape, enter, etc.). Soft keys are buttons or some kind of input device that is associated with a screen icon or text that defines the meaning of the button (like function keys on a personal computer).

Another device being standardized across manufacturers' lines is the task controller. You enter a prescription into this controller, and then based on the data entered, it creates appropriate commands to the implements. An example might be a precision farming system where you create a map of application rates on a personal computer. You then transfer that data into the tractor's task controller, which uses GPS and map data to create commands to the fertilizer spreader that result in an appropriate variable application rate.

Coming soon

Caterpillar systems integrator Sam Freesmeyer works with the ISO11783 standard on the new Challenger MT700 series tractors due to hit the market later this year. He says the strength of standardization of electronic controls is that it will make life less complicated for tractor operators who prefer to buy machinery based on performance, not color.

“Basically, the ISO standard assures that you will be able to hook up a green planter to a yellow tractor, or a yellow spreader to a red tractor. Regardless of who designed it, you should expect them to work together. One screen lets you monitor and control whatever implements are attached,” Freesmeyer says. “It boils down to easy, intuitive operation and effective ways to harvest data regardless of equipment brand. You can choose equipment based on features, not hookups.”

The idea of a communications standard all seems logical, fair and practical — an obvious choice for the equipment industry. But Freesmeyer points out that equipment marketers might be tempted by the prospect of developing competitive advantages through bundling like-branded equipment to function better with their particular brand of tractor.

Bundling discouraged

“Tractor manufacturers could conceivably provide enhanced display information, unique features or enhanced data-gathering capabilities when hooked up to like-branded equipment, but that defeats many of the potential benefits of a standardized system,” Freesmeyer says. “For many farmers, the most important crop they harvest is data. Since standardization maximizes their ability to use that data, I believe farmers, and the industry, requires total interoperability between equipment brands.”

Dave Murray, manager of engineering for AGCO's LBS+ based Fieldstar system, agrees that practical issues ultimately will override the significance of marketing-based attempts at exclusivity. And he says compatibility largely is already in place. “Since the ISO and LBS+ standards both come from the original LBS standard developed in Germany [see sidebar], implements designed with LBS+ are already very close to being ISO11783 compatible,” Murray says.

Though the most advanced VT systems are making their debut on top-of-the-line tractors such as the Fendt and the Cat MT700, Murray says you won't necessarily have to buy a new tractor to take advantage of the benefits of interoperability. In many cases, the necessary tractor technology is already out in the field waiting to be plugged into smart implements in development, and existing technology such as the AGCO Fieldstar system can be retrofitted into older tractors. “While there are not a lot of smart implements in North America now, I'd estimate that we'll see considerably more in the next two to five years,” Murray says.

Opportunities for small companies

As tractors and implements become increasingly complex, there is some worry that small manufacturers with smaller research and development budgets will get squeezed out by bigger companies. As with most new advances, the ISO standard could be either a blessing or a curse.

“It's true that smaller manufacturers might have trouble keeping up in that it requires a significant development effort to provide good quality electronics in ag products,” Stone says. “On the other hand, small companies that currently provide electronics for agricultural equipment already appear to be developing products that will meet the standard. The availability of a standardized bus system on ag equipment creates an opportunity for smaller manufacturers to provide more capability at the same cost and to better integrate their products with equipment produced by other manufacturers. It is a little like having standardized hitches on tractors. You have to obtain, read and develop to the standard, but the result is that your product functions well with all brands of equipment.”

Demand-driven technology

In the throwaway world of personal computers, it's not uncommon for consumers to buy a new computer with a totally new operating system every few years. But agricultural equipment is bigger and more expensive. Most farmers can't afford to start from scratch whenever they want the latest technology. It costs too much money to buy it and too much time to learn a new system. Faced with complex systems that often culminate in three kinds of software and a bird's nest of wires, increasingly it's the farmers who are demanding standardization for both implements and precision farming equipment. That includes everything from software to controller cable connectors. In this regard, it appears that equipment companies worldwide are listening to the needs of their farmer customers.

Saskatoon-based Flexi-Coil is one of many implement companies that now embraces the move toward standardization. In a recent interview with Winnipeg-based Grain News, the company's Electronic Group Project Manager Bob Benneweis discussed the need for standardization: “If you're considering a move into the area of electronic precision farming, it makes a lot of sense to look for equipment manufacturers committed to moving toward the new standards. The new standards, once implemented, will mean when you make a decision to trade up to any new tractor, seeding implement or combine, you won't need to buy a new totally separate precision farming system.”

Benneweis says new equipment should be standardized soon. At that point, farmers likely will start to see technological synergies. Data formats that allow free transfer of information between different equipment, and standard connectors that allow any implement to plug into any tractor, may be just the beginning. Electronic standardization could be the key that allows precision agriculture to finally fulfill its promise of being practical and profitable.

ISO11783 Standard

The ISO Working Group includes industry engineers and university and government specialists. The group meets, discusses issues and arrives at a consensus, which is then documented as an ISO standard for manufacturers.

LBS (also known as DIN 9684) was completed before ISO11783 and allowed German manufacturers to get equipment out into the market early. European manufacturers such as Fendt, Claas, Krone, Rauch, Lemken and Pottinger jumped toward electronic standardization early with the interim LBS standard called LBS+. The LBS+ based control system was demonstrated extensively at Germany's Agritechnia equipment show in 2001. Attendees were impressed by the “plug and play” capabilities between tractors and various implements. Upon being plugged in, the complex functions of an automated Claas baler, for example, can immediately be recognized and displayed on a Fendt tractor's Vario terminal screen.

In the beginning, ISO11783 was viewed as a worldwide standard that would become the “follow-on” to LBS. (In fact, some of the members of the LBS committee served and continue to serve on the ISO11783 committee.) ISO11783 was developed to incorporate many of the ideas in LBS such as the virtual terminal and the task controller concept.

Many additional capabilities beyond what were supported by LBS were demanded in ISO11783. Some examples include higher bus connection speed, the capability to support many more network devices, and more flexible support for implement systems, such as the ability to control multiple implements of the same type (ganging three drills or two planters behind one tractor, for example).

During the development of ISO11783, additional capabilities and improvements resulted from experience with LBS. The result is that both LBS and LBS+ are on the market, which are to some extent precursors to ISO11783, but at the same time competitors to ISO11783. The LBS systems are a simpler but more limited design.

Now many North America-based companies are moving directly to ISO11783. Portions of the standard dealing with tractor control and implement control are largely complete. Standards relating to remote diagnostics and other high-tech functions are still in the works. Standards relating to extremely data-intensive functions such as video and machine vision (a sprayer that can “see” and target individual weeds, for example) are likely several years in the future.

For more background on LBS and ISO11783, visit these Web sites:

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