Farm Industry News

Digital driving, the digital farmer

New electronics will leave every thing, including driving, up to your tractor.

Dr. Bobby Grisso sits in his second-story office on the University ofNebraska ag campus and recounts the functions in farm machinery thatcomputers have taken over within the last 10 to 20 years.

Engine speed. Hydraulic pressure. Temperature. Draft control. Shifting.Fuel flow. Hitch height. Power takeoff. Wheel slip. Ground speed. Seedingrate. Spraying rate. All controlled or aided by electronics.

"I'm sure there's stuff on steering we could talk about as well," Grissosays with a laugh. "It's amazing how much electronics are on a tractor."

All these developments were designed to improve the performance ofequipment and make it easier to operate. And, despite initial fears ofdecreased reliability, these changes have been fairly well accepted.That's good, because Grisso and other machinery engineers say computerswill take control of even more functions in the future - from shifting tosteering, and even to assessing your crop as you drive.

Advanced wiring. Various breakthroughs have led to the computer's hold onfarm machinery.

For starters, in the past 20 years computers have shrunk to as small as apencil lead. These tiny computers, called imbedded microprocessors, canafford to be that small because each is devoted to a single task, likeraising or lowering an implement.

Computers are not only smaller but more powerful than 20 years ago. Atypical microcomputer on a tractor or implement today is probably a 16 bitrunning at 20 or 30 MHz, according to Dr. Marvin Stone, engineer atOklahoma State University.

"That may not be as fast as a Pentium on your desk," Stone says. "But it isas powerful as desktop microcomputers were five to ten years ago. And ithas maybe triple the clock speed of those old desktops."

That kind of speed allows computers to process measurements taken from twoor three sensors every minute, according to Dr. John Gerrish with MichiganState University. These sensors measure such factors as combine headerheight, engine speed or grain moisture.

Computers also are able to calibrate sensors automatically to arrive atmore accurate measurements, Gerrish adds. Greater accuracy allows computersto handle more of the control functions on machinery, such as shiftinggears, adjusting sieves on a combine and, eventually, even steering.

The fact that we can now get a lot of computing power in a very smallpackage has led the way to yet another development: controller areanetworks. Long a part of the automotive industry, these networks enablemultiple computers to exchange information quickly and easily throughsimplified wiring.

Finally, computers are teaming up with the power of satellites and GlobalPositioning Systems to do everything from navigating machinery to analyzinga crop in specific areas of a field.

Here's a look at how these advancements are transforming the machinery madeby major equipment manufacturers.

Smart tractors. Dexter Schaible, vice president of engineering and productdevelopment worldwide at AGCO, sees two types of electronics integrationcoming, depending on whether you are talking tractors or combines. Combineswill be more "correctional"; that is, they will be able to diagnoseoperational problems and automatically correct them. Tractors, on the otherhand, will be more "programmable" so that you can tell them to perform avariety of field functions for you.

"I think in the next three to five years, the smart tractor will be here,that is, where you program it to do every function you need to do,"Schaible says. "In other words, when you come to a headland, the tractorwill automatically change speed, turn, back up, raise a plow and roll itover and drop it back to the ground. You will program it all and all youhave to do is steer the tractor."

Moving toward that end, AGCO will introduce in February the firstcontinuously variable transmission to the U.S. market as part of its newFen dt tractors, already being sold in Europe. This stepless transmission,controlled by electronics, allows you to drive without shifting.

The shifter has been replaced by a joystick, which controls speed,hydraulics and 3-pt. hitch. Operators will be able to reach their desiredspeed more quickly than with conventional tractors, whether it be a creeperspeed, a fast speed or somewhere infinite in between, AGCO claims.

Nine models ranging from 70 to 240 PTO will be available. The tractors canreach speeds up to 31 mph on the road versus the mid 20s typical in mostother tractors. Price is not available. Contact AGCO Corp., Dept. FIN, 4830River Green Pkwy., Duluth, GA 30136, 770/813-9200.

Deere also unveiled "smart" features on its new 8000 TEN series tractors,released in August. These tractors have electronically controlled selectivecontrol valves so that a computer, called an Implement Management System(IMS), can control many of the implement functions.

The system lets you lift and lower an implement, shut down an operation andshift down - all with a single button.

"With complicated implements like some of the seeding equipment, there areso many things you have to do when you get to the end of a row, and theoperator can get overloaded with having to do everything in the rightsequence," explains Terry Pickett, manager of engineering for John DeerePrecision Farming. "This allows a less experienced operator or one who istired to do a better job."

IMS sequences, raises and lowers implements as it works with AutomaticPower Shift (APS) to control rear PTO, differential lock and MFWD. APSmatches pulling load to engine load to ensure the right gear in bothworking and transport ranges. Both features come standard. Base list pricefor tractors: $88,900 to $160,400. Contact John Deere North American, Dept.FIN, Agricultural Marketing Center, 11145 Thompson Ave., Lenexa, KS66219-2302, 913/310-8324.

Self-adjusting combines. Combines are being designed to automaticallyadjust their components to correct a problem on the go. One example isCaterpillar's Lexion combines, introduced in 1997, which feature a CombineElectric Board Information System (CEBIS).

"The system allows an operator with a touch of a button to have the entiremachine reconfigure itself in response to changing conditions," says DennisDisberger, new product introduction manager. "Everything from cylinderspeed, concave clearance, wind speed, sieve adjustments, even the lossmonitor sensitivity are completely reset so that you can go from one set ofconditions to another or one crop to another without ever leaving the cab."

CEBIS also lets you bring up operation and maintenance manuals on an in-cabdisplay, tap into diagnostic capabilities or view multiple engine functionssimultaneously. A printer in the cab lets you print out harvest data orcrop settings. Suggested list price of the Lexion combines with CEBIS:$142,000 to $256,000 plus header. Contact Caterpillar Claas America LLC,Dept. FIN, 8951 S. 126th St., Omaha, NE 68138.

Electronic technicians. Diagnosing equipment problems and servicing theequipment are also getting easier with the advent of electronic networks.Because many functions are now controlled by computers, dealers can plug alaptop computer into a machine's network and pull up error codes taken fromthe computers' sensors.

These codes tell the dealer where the problem might be, and he or she canthen run tests or simulations to pinpoint the area. They can then fix theproblem in the field simply by changing the code.

The latest example is the laptop introduced in August by John Deere calledService Advisor, which will work with all of its new 6000, 7000, 8000 and9000 TEN series tractors. This field-hardened laptop has on file all of theservice manuals and bulletins necessary to fix the equipment. In the past,dealers would have to lug these manuals with them and page through to findwhat each code meant.

In most cases, only dealers have access to these service laptops. But in1997, Cat came out with a computer system for farmers called CAT I.D. thatlets you tap into some of the same diagnostic tools that service peopleuse. By scrolling through the display, you can monitor such specifics asfuel inlet temperature, turbo boost pressure, gallons of fuel burned perhour, current gear and percent tire slip to get a better idea of how yourtractor is operating.

Cat I.D. is sold as an option for around $600 on all Caterpillar ChallengerE-series tractors.

Virtual terminal. Networks also allow for the concept of a single monitor,called a "virtual terminal," that can be used in a tractor and a combineand every implement in between for a variety of applications.

For example, the terminal you use to monitor yields in a combine couldlater be transferred to your tractor and hooked up to controllers onimplements to vary rates of seed, chemicals and fertilizer based onprescription maps made with GIS software. This terminal could also workwith different makes of implements at the same time.

To arrive at this virtual terminal, the industry is developing standardsfor all companies to follow when designing their systems, according toOklahoma's Stone, who serves on the standards committee.

"Soon enough you'll be able to buy a red display unit and it should workwith a Green Star," Stone says. "Which should mean that you shouldn't haveto buy multiple displays. And it should make it easier to operate equipmentthat has electronics on it."

Companies are already getting close to the idea. For example, in the fallof 1997, Case Corporation introduced its AFS Universal Display andUniversal Display Plus (with GPS) for purchase with Case IH seedingimplements. The display varies the rate of seed, liquid fertilizer andgranular chemicals by location. Almost all planter controls, includingmanual rate changes and frame folds, can be made by touching on-screenprompts.

After planting, this same monitor can manage spray applications, then betransferred to the combine cab to serve as a yield monitor. It willautomatically reprogram itself for the application. It is mounted with twoscrews and two electrical connectors.

The display is now being offered as a factory option on all 1999 AFScombine models.

Cost: Universal Display, $1,595; Universal Display Plus, $2,495; or $9,500for complete system for AFS combine. Contact Case Corp., Dept. FIN, 700State St., Racine, WI 53404-3392, 414/636-6011.

Just this month, AGCO announced that starting next year its DataTouchterminal, now being used as part of its FieldStar precision farming systemthat measures yield on a combine, will be able to be transferred to atractor to vary seeding rates on a planter or chemical rates on a sprayer.The GPS antenna, receiver and black box controller also are transferable.

AGCO's display will let you monitor up to six different field functions atonce, such as ground speed, elevator speed and crop moisture. "It's likehaving an operator's manual at your fingertips," says Jerry Schmitt,general marketing manager for FieldStar. List price: $8,500 to $10,000,including factory or field installation with satellite or Coast Guard GPS.

X-ray crop. Nebraska's Grisso expects that the integration of GPS will leadto many future electronic advancements in farm machinery. He says more andmore sensors will be added to pick up site-specific information aboutfactors that may affect yield.

"We're moving a little more away from just improving equipment performanceinto trying to find out what is going on in the soil," Grisso says.

In August, Case announced that it has developed, in conjunction withTextron Systems, a new crop quality analyzer for its Axial-Flow combines.Unlike a yield monitor that measures mass and moisture only, the newanalyzer can measure crop characteristics - such as percentage of oil andprotein in corn, soybeans and wheat - in each area of the field while youare driving.

"Today, producers are unable to differentiate their commodity production,"says Linda Knoll, Case product development director of Advanced FarmingSystems. "With our grain quality analyzer, that problem is going to goaway."

Compositional content is measured by a near-infrared spectrometer, whichrecords the reflection of the grain as it passes by a beam of light. It isthe same technology labs use, only repackaged to be more affordable,self-calibrating and durable enough for on-farm use.

The information is displayed on the same AFS Universal Display Plus monitorused to monitor yield in the combine cab and can be stored on a computercard for download to an office PC. Using GIS software, a grower can map thedata to get a visual picture of how oil and protein vary through the field.By knowing where that variation exists, growers will be able to segregateand market their grains according to their end value, Knoll says.

Commercial production is less than five years away. Price will compare tothat of a yield monitoring system.

Grisso thinks sensors also could be added to combines and tractors tomeasure such factors as soil organic matter, soil moisture and nutrientlevels. These factors could then be correlated to yield to figure out whycertain areas of the field yield better than others.

"It's like any technology when you start introducing it," Grisso says."There's a large informational base that has to be built around it beforewe find its niches. And I think that's where we are going to be over thenext 10 or 15 years as we start looking at all these electronic gizmos andhow they all fit in."

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