If you imagine an agricultural landscape, you probably picture a field being worked by a farmer on his tractor. As the world's population continues to grow, however, there will be at least one big change to this scenario: While the special relationship between farmers and their equipment will continue, the machines out on the field will be handling much of the work on their own.
By 2050, the world's population will reach around nine billion peopleProjection by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. And one thing they all have in common is that they all must eat. That presents a substantial challenge for the agricultural industry. Farmers need to get more yield from fewer acres, while at the same time struggling to find sufficient skilled labor. The answer is autonomous equipment. Even the most skilled tractor jockey is no match for a machine's tireless precision. Autonomous agricultural equipment delivers centimeter-level accuracy for hours on end – and that's exactly what's needed on the farm of the future.
Losses in potato crop can be avoided by sowing them precisely in the middle of a mound of soil. An autonomous machine can be programmed to ensure that every single potato in the entire field is planted exactly right. Not only that: it does it quickly and never stops for breaks.
In addition to their extreme precision, autonomous agricultural equipment also has benefits in terms of resource utilization. Fertilizers and pesticides can be targeted directly at the crop, as opposed to blanket application over the entire field. "That helps farmers boost their yield while also keeping their costs down, since each plant gets exactly the dose it needs," explains Stefan Taxer, B&R's product manager for mobile automation.
It's also a relief for the environment. Time and labor-intensive tasks like plowing and weeding are also prime candidates for machines to handle. "Autonomous equipment is an answer to the shortage of skilled labor in agriculture," emphasizes Taxer. Machines also save workers from strenuous and monotonous tasks.
For farming equipment to perform all this work autonomously, it must collect data from a variety of sensors. It must also be able to process that data. "Computing power is a key requirement for any autonomous machine," says Taxer. Standard control systems like those used to automate production machinery are not enough. Big gains in productivity can be attained through big data analytics.
Give an autonomous tractor access to data from weather stations, for example, and it can determine when conditions will be best to perform a given task. If changes in the weather pose a problem, it can stop automatically and pick right back up again when the situation improves.
To provide the processing power needed for analytics and autonomous processes, B&R offers a specially designed PC for mobile machinery. "The PC has an Intel processor with a wide range of scalability – from Celeron to Core i7," says Taxer. Intel technology delivers high performance with low power consumption for optimal energy efficiency.
"You won't find another product on the mobile equipment market that offers this kind of processing power and modularity in compact PC form," notes Taxer. B&R is able to draw from 40 years of experience in automation and PC production for industrial manufacturing.
The PC is specially designed to perform in harsh environments. With IP69K protection, it can be used in a temperature range of -40°C to +85°C. The completely enclosed housing is fanless and highly resistant to shock and vibration. A specially designed temperature management solution protects the processor from overheating, while also ensuring that it works flawlessly in cold temperatures.
For machines to form a network and communicate with each other, they must exchange data. A combine harvester with a tractor and trailer following alongside it, for example, can keep track of the tractor's speed and steering data in order to make optimal use of the available loading space while also minimizing seed waste. The machines use special protocols to talk to each other.
B&R offers the widely used protocols MQTT and AMQP. They allow data packets to be transferred reliably even in cases where the network connection has low bandwidth or is intermittently unavailable. "From hardware to software to a uniform, open communication standard – with B&R as a technology partner, today's most advanced smart farming practices are easily within reach," says Taxer.
The data collected by autonomous equipment can provide a wealth of information through appropriate analysis. Comparing the yield from multiple harvesters, for example, can help identify potential for optimization in the way future crops are sown or fertilized. "In such a scenario, the B&R PC serves as an edge device, allowing the machine to send data to a cloud," explains Taxer. An edge controller is a device used to collect large volumes of data from a variety of machines. It compresses and aggregates the data and prepares it for storage in the cloud.
The data collected by the PC can also be shared with other systems for remote maintenance and predictive maintenance. "B&R offers a pre-installed, pre-configured package that makes implementing predictive maintenance more straightforward than ever," says Taxer. This makes it possible to predict and schedule machines' maintenance requirements and substantially boost their availability.
Author: Carola Schwankner, Corporate Communications Editor, B&R
Specially designed for harsh environments
B&R's PC for mobile machinery offers high-performance processing for agricultural equipment and other machinery operated in harsh environments. It supports standard operating systems like Windows 10 IoT Enterprise and Linux, and also features 16 GB of RAM and a TPM module.
The PC can handle operating temperatures from -40 to +85 °C and is resistant to vibration, shock, salt, UV light and oil. Moisture and condensation are no problem either. A special vent with a Gore-Tex membrane prevents moisture from entering the PC housing while allowing condensation to easily escape. The PC is insensitive to voltage fluctuations. In addition to a broad standard voltage range from 9 to 32 V, it also has integrated load dump protection. This compensates for peaks in the supply voltage to protect the electronics and ensure uninterrupted operation.