What could be better than an air-conditioned cab with surround sound, wireless Internet and the latest GPS system in your next combine? How about no cab at all? Imagine if everything from plowing and planting to fertilizing and harvesting could be done from the seat of an office desk rather than a tractor.
This is not mad science. It's a new field called "precision farming."
I recently spent some time talking with Barbara Schmitz, chief marketing officer, MEN Mikro Elektronik, about robot tractors and the kinds of embedded products that will help turn this vision into reality.
It seems strange to think you could take the farmer off of the tractor and operate it from miles away as it moves through mud up to its axles over uneven terrain. But the truth is, there's an entire science being developed around integrating remote sensing, robotics, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems.
Precision farming uses desktop mapping to manage and store mapped data. Map analysis is used to discover relationships among variables such as yield and soil nutrient levels. This step is much more accurate than yearly observations because it uses the computer and digital maps to establish detailed mathematical and statistical relationships. As for controlling the tractor, mid-range GPS receivers can easily establish positions within a field within a meter. In fact, geospatial technology has evolved so rapidly within production agriculture that in less than 15 years, it is increasingly difficult to buy a tractor that isn’t GPS-enabled with on-board navigation and on-the-fly instrumentation.
Now it's time to take it to the next step with Intelligent Automated Vehicles (IAVs) that take the farmer out of the driver's seat and put the farmer at the controls of something much more powerful. With GPS navigation equipment, onboard sensors and embedded computers based on embedded Intel processors, it's envisioned that IAVs will be able to analyze soil conditions on the fly, map fields, monitor crop growth and dispense precise quantities of seed and fertilizer—all in a single pass.
Naturally, the farm is a harsh environment for any computer. Think mud, dust, pollen, heat, vibration, and power limitations. That's where MEN Mikro Elektronik, an Associate Member of Intel® Embedded and Communications Alliance, comes in. This is their specialty. According to Schmitz, the company's focus is "to develop rugged embedded computer boards and systems for harsh, mobile and mission-critical environments." If you're looking at 80,000 acres of soybeans that have to produce maximum yields to turn a reasonable profit, that's pretty mission critical.
For that reason, farm equipment manufacturers on the vanguard of precision farming are looking into embedded products from companies like MEN Mikro Elektronik. One of their latest products is the RC1, a -40 to 85°C, fanless and maintenance-free box computer that complements the rugged COM design of their MM1 with a rugged system solution complying with IP 67 and certified by the German Federal Motor Transport Authority for mobile devices. Coupled with application-specific carrier boards, Schmitz says their COM solutions XM1 (ESMexpress) and MM1 (ESMini) using Intel® Atom™ processors (Z530, Z510, Z510P, Z530P, and extended temperature versions Z510PT and Z520PT) are the ideal brains for fanless small-footprint embedded automation and control computers designed to withstand conditions in the field.
Tough enough for a Canadian winter? Or a hot day on the farm in India? Certainly. The new Intel Atom processors Z510PT and Z530PT are designed for extreme temperature environments ranging from -40 to 85°C. This kind of range is crucial to the industrial, automotive and agricultural equipment segments.
Each IAV-based tractor will be a perfect example of the 15 billion intelligent, connected devices (the Embedded Internet) that IDC predicts to be online by the year 2015. These tractors will be guided by an onboard control system to run software programs and power the vehicle’s Human-Machine Interface (HMI) and a communications subsystem for GPS positioning, navigation, steering, onboard connectivity and WLAN-based communication to the farmer's desktop.
Is this agricultural science fiction? Hardly. Precision farming is much closer than you think. And it's a good thing it is. The extra productivity it will add to the plow is vital to the burgeoning world population. In the very near future, it's going to take greater efficiency in every aspect of agriculture to put food in everyone's mouths at a reasonable cost.
See a use for IAVs in an industry you've targeted? Want to try driving a tractor from a desktop PC? What's your opinion of this exciting new field?