Prior to the formation of the Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF) in 2008, agricultural equipment manufacturers encountered a recurring issue. Tractors and implements used to help farmers do everything from seeding and spraying to harvesting and baling were often electronically incompatible with one another. This created a number of challenges, often limiting the equipment farmers could use to ones with systems that could communicate.
The AEF was formed to address the interoperability problem with respect to ISOBUS, a common Controller Area Network (CAN BUS) communication system that typically runs between a tractor and an implement. While ISOBUS had been a standard (ISO 11783) for manufacturers to follow since the early 2000s, accurately following the standard when developing a product was often easier said than done.
AEF, which originally consisted of seven equipment manufacturers and two trade organizations, worked to address the confusion that prevented agricultural equipment from being fully compatible by investigating issues on the ISOBUS and documenting the resolutions in guidelines which are available for AEF members to use when developing ISOBUS products.
The organization has grown to more than 260 member companies and continues to do the work of improving cross-manufacturer compatibility today. Although AEF has traditionally focused on electronic agricultural equipment, it also has its sights set on helping to increase standardization across new farming technologies.
At the World FIRA event in February 2023, representatives from AEF will present how embracing two ISOBUS functionalities could increase collaboration and success for manufacturers of agricultural robots and other autonomous equipment. Alfred Kornes and Andrew Olliver share a preview of what attendees can expect to learn below.
Functionality 1: Tractor Implement Management (TIM)
To understand TIM, it’s important to know that often the implement knows more about what it needs from the tractor to get the job done than the tractor itself. TIM gives the implement the power to control certain functions on the tractor, such as hitch height, steering, power take off, electrohydraulic remote valves and forward speed, to ensure the task at hand is effectively managed. Alfred Kornes, team leader for the AEF communications and marketing team, uses the example of a baler.
“When the tractor is using a baler , TIM allows the baler to control some of the tractor functions,” he says. “With respect to speed, the baler can tell the tractor to decelerate or stop. After the tractor stops, the baler might tell the tractor to operate a hydraulic valve to open the bale chamber .”
“The baler has sensors in it and can detect when the chamber is full,” Kornes continues. “The baler, in this case, knows more about what it needsthan the operator. It uses TIM to automatically control the tractor or alert the operator when action is required. From there, the operator has the option to press a button to resume that feature or process. The operator is still involved in the task but gets to do less as the implement is optimizing its operation. They can relax inside the tractor a bit more and be there in case there’s an issue or operator input is required.”
Functionality 2: Task Controller: Basic (TC-BAS), Section Control (TC-SC) and Geo (TC-GEO)
The Task Controller includes three ISOBUS functionalities in one. Typically it is software running on the tractor’s displayto automatically control what the implement is doing and can be considered the precision farming part of the ISOBUS . Whether the task involves planting, spraying, spreading or baling, the Task Controller’s three functionalities tell the implement what to do and where to do it. A GPS receiver is required, but a prescription map is optional (depending on the operation) According to Andrew Olliver, AEF chairperson, the “what and where” are essential for the purposes of traceability.
“The Task Controller in the display is logging the work that the implement has done,” he says. “For the farmer these days, this is one of the most important pieces. If we talk about traceability, how can you show what's being applied?”
“Because you have the Task Controller software in the display, you have the recording of what was done where,” Olliver explains. “This data can then be exported from the display and imported to the Farm Management Information System (FMIS) in an ISO.XML format. The operator now has a record of what has been done across the whole farm—something that’s useful for bookkeeping, agronomic analysis and if they need to create a report for the local authorities or government agencies.”
The Big-Picture Benefits of ISOBUS Compatibility
While many manufacturers of traditional farming equipment have long used the ISOBUS standard to ensure greater compatibility and ultimately help their farmer customers succeed, few within the autonomous robotics industry are familiar with AEF’s efforts.
This is part of why the organization has asked to be part of the upcoming World FIRA event. The TIM and Task Controller functionalities already exist on tractors and implements today. They also have the potential to advance the robotics market, create new opportunities for collaboration and increase adoption rates for new technologies.
“I have already seen an example of a company that has developed a fully autonomous machine that can run in the field who are also working on creating a semi-autonomous implement that can work with TIM equipped tractors, which are already on the market today,” Olliver says. “That’s why I think it’s important for the autonomous robotics companies to be aware of the TIM functionality—it can give them access to another market and help with growth.”
Olliver uses the example of a company that creates a robotic implement that has enough intelligence to be able to manage itself. In this case, the manufacturer should consider using the TIM functionality to ensure the implement can be used with tractors in a safe and secure way. TIM uses a “security handshake” that confirms both pieces of equipment have passed the AEF conformance test, something that is necessary to prove this is an authorized safe partnership. Once the partnership is approved, theimplement and tractor can work together without issue.
“This kind of trusted partnership is something AEF thinks will be very useful for the autonomous and robotics companies because it gives them another avenue for working with existing machines that are already in the field, namely the tractors that all of the OEMs make and sell,” Olliver says. “If you look at farming today, there is already a lot of equipment out there with ISOBUS connections. For new technologies entering into the marketplace to have the greatest success, they need to be compatible with what a farmer already owns.”
This is particularly true given that most farmers aren’t keen to change their entire operation to fit one new piece of equipment. Additionally, most farms tend to replace old machines one at a time instead of all at once. Olliver adds that those selling the latest innovations have a better chance of increasing adoption when their equipment plays well with whatever is already used in the field.
“The greater cooperation there is between the existing equipment and the new technologies, the greater possibility there is for easy data exchange and for everything to be in the one place where it can be used by the Farmer,” he says. “When you have active collaboration among partners in the same industry, that leads to interoperability and, eventually, to standardization. This really highlights that the more we get together and collaborate on things, the more success everyone can have.”