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History and trends: CAN in agriculture and farming

The world human population is growing. CAN was helping, is helping, and will be helping to provide people with food and beverage.

(Source: Adobe Stock)

The complete article is published in the March issue of the CAN Newsletter magazine 2022. This is just an excerpt.

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants and livestock. The history of agriculture began thousands of years ago, when humans started to settle down: Nomadic gatherers and hunters turned into arable farmers, cattle breeders, and sedentary fishermen. In the antic high cultures, agriculture technology was developed to enable the building of cities and monuments. Not everyone was involved in the production of food. There were a lot of workers and administration staff.

Nowadays, the farmers need to feed about eight billion of people. This can only be achieved when using sophisticated technology including electronic-controlled and automated machines. Smart farming is the buzzword: It has a real potential to deliver a more productive and sustainable agricultural production, based on a more precise and resource-efficient approach. It comprises agricultural automation and robotics, precision agriculture, and management information systems.

Isobus and its predecessors

Already before CAN was invented, German engineers discussed and developed the LBS (landwirtschaftliches Bussystem; engl. agriculture bus-system) network approach for connecting electronic equipment within agriculture machinery. When CAN was introduced in 1986, the LBS specification adapted this serial network technology and standardized it in DIN 9684/2-5. But it was not flying due to some technical issues regarding the physical layer specification. Additionally, the North American farming industry was in favor of the J1939 CAN-based network technology, originally developed for commercial road vehicles. The result of the worldwide harmonized and joint development on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean is well-known: Isobus, internationally standardized in the ISO 11783 series, is worldwide used to connect tractors and implements. Implements is the name for any kind of attached machinery: sprayers, fertilizers, harvesters, etc.

One of the most important benefits is the development of the virtual terminal (VT) approach. It allows using the truck-mounted display for all connected implements. The VT communicates via the CAN-based Isobus network with the implements. The farmer controls the implements via the VT and the implements provide status information to the VT The development of the Isobus technology started mid of the 90ties. In 2001, first machinery using it arrived on European farms. Today, there are many implements with an Isobus interface. The CAN Newsletter Online reports regularly about new product developments and the progress of the 14-parts ISO 11783 standards series.

Table: Isobus standards overview

Associations promoting Isobus

There are several associations, which help to promote the development and to increase interoperability of Isobus-based applications. SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) develops and publishes J1939-based standard series referenced by Isobus specifications. AEF (Agri cultural Industry Electronics Foundation) is the nonprofit association promoting and pre-developing the Isobus protocols. The AEF members jointly work on interoperability solutions. The foundation also proves and certifies devices in so-called Isobus plugfests. The CC-Isobus is a joint development activity of several implement manufacturers, which develop and provide a broad portfolio of VT products. Established in 2009, this competence center has designed the CC-I 1200 terminal, for example, which has been installed more than 50 000 times. DLG (German Agriculture Society) organizes the worldwide biggest Agritechnica tradeshow in Hanover (Germany). The awards, conferred by a committee of experts appointed by the DLG, recognize leading technologies and new developments in the agricultural equipment and machinery sector.

Embedded machine control

Agriculture and forestry machines are equipped highly with electronics. These include the Isobus backbone networks connecting electronic control units (ECU) and additional sub-layered embedded CAN-based networks. Some of them use proprietary application layers, while others are based on J1939 or CANopen. As some recent examples, Actia offers the SPU40-26 safety power unit with an ISO 11783 compliant interface, which has been certified and proved by AEF. B-Plus has a range of CAN- and Isobus-capable development tools, measurement technology, as well as several controllers in its product portfolio. Bernecker + Reiner, Epec, ifm electronic, Intercontrol, and STW provide host controllers with Isobus-connectivity. They are linked via the CAN interface with the operator displays. Some of them support the virtual terminal function (VT).

Syslogic offers AI (artificial intelligence) PCs with a J1939 (FD) interface and Crosscontrol offers terminals with a CAN FD interface. These provide a higher throughput than the current Isobus or proprietary Classical CAN interfaces. But some farmers prefer traditional tablet computers as user interface. Such solutions are offered e.g. by Reichardt. Ruggedized J1939-connectable in-vehicle telematics tablets are offered by Waysion Technology, Zhangzhou Lilliput Electronic Technology, and Ruggon.

TTControl’s HY-TTC 500 controller family with three CAN interfaces meets safety standards up to EN ISO 25119 Ag PLd, IEC 61508 SIL 2, and ISO 13849 PLd. A typical Isobus-compliant job controller platform is the APC mobile 3100 by Bernecker + Reiner. The company’s X90 controller features a CANopen Safety interface. This safety-related network can be used for implement-internal control purposes.

The awarded automated vehicle by Fendt and Braun (Source: Fendt/Braun)

Optimized tractor control: TIM

The TIM (tractor implement management) function allows the implement to send commands to the tractor. In this way trailed machines can control functions such as PTO (power take off) shaft, lifting gear, driving speed, steering angle, or hydraulic valves. Thus, the combined machinery automatically adjusts to the current situation reducing the operator’s burden, increasing machine performance, and productivity. Several tractor manufacturers already integrate TIM in their vehicles and implements. Fendt, Krone, John Deere, Kubota (Kverneland), Lemken, and Claas are just some examples.

TIM was originally invented by John Deere and is further developed by AEF. First TIM solutions were introduced at Agritechnica 2009. At that time only the machines of the same manufacturer could exchange data. With the release of the TIM specification version 2, the implement sends information to the tractor via a standardized and secure communication. Nowadays, it is a cross-product and cross-manufacturer solution i.e. a tractor-implement combination from different manufacturers is possible. Using Isobus-tested devices with the TIM function (certified by AEF), farmers expect that the coupling of the tractor and the implement works in a plug-and-play manner.

Awarded Isobus solutions

On the Agritechnica tradeshow in 2019, DLG has awarded several Isobus solutions. For instance, the automated tractor and implement guidance system for wineyards, which was jointly developed by Fendt and Braun. The ground contour, vines, poles, etc. are recorded using laser technology and the information is passed on to the tractor via the Isobus interface. Additionally, the 3D position is determined with a gyroscope and the tractor assumes the track and implement guidance based on this information.

The Isomax solution by CNH Industrial global agricultural brand New Holland is a hardware and software interface compliant with ISO 11783 series. All hardware components are AEF certified, all software is open source, and the system is compatible with all brands. System features include automatic implement recognition to facilitate operation. Additionally, the IQblue retrofit TIM solution by Lemken was awarded. Deploying a GPS receiver, it allows users to automate agriculture machines for ploughing, cultivating, tilling, etc. Another winner was the Nevonex open Isobus platform powered by Bosch. Like an operating system, it forms the basis of software applications to program new and legacy machines. An integrated interface management enables optional access to the platform via the Isobus.

After going in the box the robotic arm moves under the cow, scans it with lasers to find the teats, and attaches four teat cups (Source: Lely)

From automated to autonomous

Autonomy has been creeping into tractors and other farm equipment for decades, with recent advances building upon progress in robotics and self-driving cars. Advances in sensing, communication, and control technologies coupled with global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and geographical information systems (GIS) enable tractors to become automated or even autonomous. Self-driving tractors could help save farmers money and automate work that is threatened by an ongoing agricultural labor shortage. The gathered data about the soil and precision farming applications help to enhance productivity and optimize resource efficiency.

The increasing autonomy requires additional sensors connected to the CAN-based in-vehicle networks. Typical examples include cameras, 3D sensors, and GNSS systems. GNSS-supported steering systems are already used in daily farming work. Due to real-time kinematics (RTK), intervention is no longer required when the farmer has to line up their tractor or other self-propelled machines such as sprayers, choppers, and harvesters with the next track with an accuracy of two to three centimeters. Of course, the steering wheel needs to be moved by an electric motor. For instance, Reichardt provides the PSR Advanced automatic steering system using GNSS, low-wear synthetic tactile sensors, and ultrasonic sensors. It includes an Isobus terminal as well as several panel-apps and can be used for retrofit applications.

Self-steering tractors have existed for some time now. Hereby, the tractor does most of the work, with the farmer stepping in for emergencies. The technology is advancing towards driverless machinery guided by GPS. Recently, John Deere already introduced the fully autonomous 8R tractor. Further tractor manufacturers are expected to follow.

CAN in animal farms

CAN-based networks are embedded, and thus invisible for “outsiders”, in many applications for livestock cultivation e.g. in cowsheds, pig farms, and poultry barns. Already mid of the 90ties, CAN networks were used in cowshed carousels. They connected feeding equipment and devices measuring the water amount the animals were taking. Today, service robots feed and serve animals with increasing autonomy.

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CAN Newsletter March 2022