Tech Takes the Wheel

December 16, 2011 10:41 PM
Tech Takes the Wheel

Automation, wireless data transfer and new power systems are transforming farm machinery

Computers, satellites and electronics are dramatically changing the farm equipment industry. From the engineering process to the manufacturing line to farm-ready machines, the rapid advances in technology are driving one of the biggest machinery evolutions.

Ten years ago, did you think tractors could drive themselves without anyone in the cab? Automated steering systems have progressed from the field testing stage to factory-installed—and today, multiple companies have demonstrated operatorless tractor systems.

Precision agriculture is now an industry in and of itself, with a range of on-farm systems. From aftermarket options to machine-specific systems from OEM companies, farmers can use a single integrated display for planting, harvesting and everything in between.

As manufacturers adopt the ISOBUS 11783 standard, farmers have more choices in how they manage field operations. The ISOBUS standard provides universal communication so that displays are color-blind to the type of implement they control and the brand of tractor they’re paired with.

No driver necessary. Several ag equipment companies have introduced their projects that remove a person from the driver’s seat. Machinery automation reduces labor needs or the skill of labor necessary.

In July, Kinze Manufacturing unveiled the Kinze Autonomy Project, a partnership with Jaybridge Robotics, by demonstrating a tractor and grain cart system that does not need an operator behind the wheel. The company has also gone to the field with an autonomous tractor and planter setup.

"This project set out to bring autonomy to the row crop grower for planting, application and harvest," says Brian McKown, Kinze’s chief operating officer and Autonomy Project manager. "The technologies that make this system possible are already in place: RTK GPS; machine automation, such as row clutch shutoff; and sensing technology."

In the harvest application, the Kinze system syncs the tractor and grain cart with the combine. Using the Kinze Integra monitor in the combine, the tractor finds the combine in the field, pulls adjacent to the combine for unloading, follows the combine’s path of travel until the cart is full and then returns to the field’s pre-set "staging area."

For planting, GPS is used to set field boundaries for the planter and tractor, and then the system calculates the planting map to follow. The system can be programmed with known field obstacles, and the optical sensors will detect any immediate obstacles.

The harvest and planting demonstrations used a John Deere 8430 tractor; Kinze plans to extend the system’s compatibility to include many brands and models of tractors, sprayers and other machinery.

Fendt GuideConnect Einsatzbild
Like a game of follow the leader, the Fendt GuideConnect system allows the lead tractor to control the second tractor’s operation in the field.
JD 6076633175 c579dcb5f1 b
With the push of a button, John Deere’s Machine Sync matches the path of the grain cart and tractor to that of the combine’s for hands-off operation.

Fendt recently introduced its version of an automated tractor system at Agritechnica 2011. GuideConnect allows one tractor to follow another’s path through the field. With radio connections and GPS signals, the tractors can sync their positions in real time. The driver in the lead tractor controls the secondary machine’s functions. The concept allows two tractors to work simultaneously in the field and potentially replace one bigger tractor.

Machine to machine. While autonomous systems aren’t available to farmers just yet, the concept of machine connectivity is a reality.

John Deere’s Machine Sync, which automates equipment during harvest and provides mechanical information, location and operational status, will be available in early 2012. When you press "engage," the tractor and grain cart’s position and groundspeed become a hands-off operation.
"Harvest is like a square dance—there are a lot of people involved, there are lots of steps and the music only gets faster," says John Deere’s Mark Brokaw. "You set a home point, and the machine will return there every time. The grain cart drivers can see everyone in the network, and the combines and tractors communicate when it’s time to load."

A Machine Communication Radio is paired with Machine Sync, the GreenStar 3 Display 2630 and a StarFire receiver to share logistical information with up to 10 vehicles in a three-mile radius.
In early 2011 at Ag Connect Expo, Case IH unveiled developments for its vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) control system. Using a secure radio link, the V2V control system allows one driver to synchronize the data exchange, travel speed and steering of two vehicles. For example, during harvest, the combine driver can also control the tractor and grain cart to maintain consistent, on-the-go unloading.

The company’s new Precision Agriculture business unit is expanding industry partnerships and providing cutting-edge systems along with specialized service with more in-field personnel. Their goal is to provide 24/7 call-in support for precision ag customers 365 days a year.

"Precision farming requires us to fully support the working efficiency of farmers," says Trevor Mecham, Case IH Precision Farming marketing manager.

Case IH and Trimble are partnering to bring a telematics product to market with two subscription levels for farmers.

Telematics allows for data to be wirelessly transferred from the field to the office. Systems can track up to three dozen machine attributes from location to mechanical functions.

"With the machine tracking in AgCommand [AGCO’s telematics platform], we’ve seen organizations improve their overall efficiency by centralizing the area where a machine works," says Mark Sharitz, director of marketing for AGCO Application Equipment. "The early adopters have realized the benefits go beyond having AgCommand on their applicators and have installed units on their tendering equipment. These retailers know when the tender is en route to the plant and can have the next batch of product pre-mixed and waiting, cutting downtime for the tender and the applicator in the field."

Claas launched a program this fall that allows users to not only see their machines in operation but also look at other Lexion combines across the country. The online platform showed participating combines at work in the field along with details such as bushels per acre, bushels per hour, total bushels, total acres and fuel consumption via Google Earth interactive maps. Claas Telematics tracks 35 machine attributes and is an option on all 700 Series combines.

Telematics can be used to streamline the dealer and farmer relationship by providing remote diagnostics and troubleshooting. This includes systems from full-line manufacturers and specialized precision ag companies.

Case IH CVT (4)
In a live demonstration, Case IH shows a cutaway of how its continuously variable transmission operates.

"Technology has been transformative in our business in the way it’s integrated with machines," says John Lagemann, John Deere vice president of sales and marketing.

John Deere FarmSight, an integrated program that the company plans to deploy soon, will transform the relationship between the dealer and farmer. JDLink is the company’s first telematics product as part of its FarmSight strategy. All S Series combines; 9R, 8R, 7R and 6R tractors; and 4940 sprayers are ready for telematics from the factory, and field-install kits are available for other models.

The big picture. Machinery companies are not just focusing on individual products but rather on complete technology concepts for the farm.

"We’re encouraging farmers and dealers to think of technology as an integrated total farm plan, not just about driving straight," says Todd Stucke, director of marketing, AGCO North America.
Intertwining machinery and technology is changing how some manufacturers structure their business.

Claas is accumulating its electronics expertise under one name: EASY (Efficient Agriculture Systems by Claas.) The EASY group encompasses a cross-functional team that includes service personnel, product management, sales staff and more electronics expertise across the company.

"To us, EASY is more than an acronym. The average farmer is 57, and he wants the technology to improve his bottom line without having to fully understand the tech-nology. We have to be there to help the customer get the most from the system," says Leif Magnusson, president of Claas North America.

Beyond GPS. The technology being employed on today’s machinery involves more than GPS applications and precision ag systems. New engineering in drivetrains and power sources are coming to market with efficiency in mind.

Since AGCO introduced continuously vari-able transmissions (CVT) on Fendt tractors in 1995, many manufacturers have engineered stepless transmissions with an infinite number of gears. These transmissions provide greater fuel economy by matching the engine to run at its most efficient revolutions per minute.

Mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, off-road diesel engines have to meet stricter emission regulations outlined by the Tier 4 Interim standards. Ag manufacturers are meeting the
requirements with two systems: selective catalytic reduction (SCR), which treats exhaust gas with a urea solution, and a diesel particulate filter, which undergoes regeneration cycles to burn the particulate matter. With these new engines and the increased cost, manufacturers have chosen to bundle new technologies to provide added value.

"As a manufacturer, we knew that along with the technology to meet the emission standards, we needed to provide more value in the new machines to justify the more expensive engine system," explains Class’s Magnusson.

The Tier 4 Final standard will be fully implemented for ag equipment by 2014, which means additional models are in the works. Case IH, the first manufacturer to publicly announce its strategy to meet Tier 4 Final, says it will solely use SCR systems for equipment that is 100 hp and greater.

New Holland Hydrogen (2)
Claas ETRION (1)
As a second-generation concept vehicle, the NH2 from New Holland (top) uses onboard hydrogen fuel cells. Looking to the future, Claas displays the ETRION 400 (above) to give a sneak peek of how its engineering team is envisioning the future.

Ditching diesel. Looking to the future, companies are brainstorming the next energy source for machines and rethinking power systems.

New Holland unveiled its Hydrogen fuel cell tractor in 2009. Still in development, the NH2 has evolved from the concept model with double the power (from 50 to 100 kw), a new CVT, increased torque, a suspended front axle and a front loader mounting point. Using a New Holland T6.140 production model as a base, the NH2 has two on-board electric motors, one for traction and one to operate the PTO and auxiliary circuits. The unit can work up to three hours, depending on the load. This summer, the tractor will be put to work on the La Bellotta farm in Venaria, near Turin, New Holland’s first Energy Independent Farm.

In 2008, Claas engineers began exploring drivetrain and power supply options to maximize efficiency. As a result, they developed the machine called ETRION, which stands for electromobility, trac (for "track") and rad (German for "wheel"), with the typical Claas "ion" suffix. Today, Claas Power Systems is taking research to the next level, knowing that horsepower, speed, maneuverability, efficiency and the operator’s environment can be enhanced. This includes front and rear implements and plug-in technologies.

The idea for on-board electrical generation was displayed at Agritechnica in 2007 by John Deere, in 2009 by Belarus and this year by Swiss company Rigitrac.

Remember that 10 years ago, auto-steering was just reaching the farm. Imagine what the next decade will bring.

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