The Challenges of Integrating Smart Technology into Agricultural Machinery

Smart technology is changing how we feed the world. Spurred by the growing global population and the challenges created by the changing environment, means that the agricultural sector has been quick to embrace new solutions that will increase productivity. In this article, we continue exploring various aspects of the deployment and impact of smart technology in the agriculture and farming industries. This builds on the discussion we initiated in our first article, “The Power of Smart Agriculture and the Role of RF Technology”, which examines the societal impact of smart farming and the role that radiofrequency (RF) continues to play in machine-to-machine communications.  

Smart Farming’s Potential

Concept of remote control of a tractor without a driver, collection and analysis of data obtained from the field for sowing crops using artificial intelligence.

Smart farming uses the latest trends in machine-to-machine communications to link all elements, whether static sensors or traditional farm machinery, into a network that collects and shares data.  Taking advantage of the latest 5G communications technology, the smart farm uses the data connected to create a complete picture of the farm environment, enabling farmers to make the best use of the available resources to ensure the greatest yield. 

These wireless communications systems make use of RF transmission technology, along with the latest developments in edge computing, to make the smart farm a reality. However, there are challenges that go along with integrating the latest technologies into the agricultural industry that need to be addressed.

Design Challenges: The Farming Environment

One of the key challenges of deploying technology into farming is the environment. Farming is a tough business. Equipment that is deployed in the field must resist all extremes of weather. A wide range of temperatures, moisture and prolonged exposure to sunlight means that agricultural equipment must be designed with care.

Solutions: RF Connectivity Choices

To protect sensitive electronics, enclosures must provide a tight seal against the ingress of water ranging from rain showers to full immersion in puddles for days on end.  This task is made more complex by the need to provide connectivity to the device.  Any component that must pass through the wall of the enclosure, such as a connector, must provide the same level of protection as the enclosure itself. This means that the designer must be fully aware of the application and how the device is going to be deployed in the field. 

The use of ingress protection (IP) ratings makes it easier to define the conditions that a device must withstand. However, it is vital to understand the differences between the ratings. For example, a piece of equipment that is mounted in a sheltered location might still be exposed to high-pressure water spray from irrigation. The engineer must be aware of the performance of all the components selected for their design.

Extremes of temperature will also influence the protection of the equipment. Devices designed to be installed outside may be exposed to the cold of mid-winter in the Canadian north or the temperatures of equatorial Africa. This variation in temperatures means that designers must choose materials with care to ensure that they continue to perform at each extreme. Some rubber and plastic materials can become brittle at low temperatures, while others become soft in high heat. Material choice is further complicated by sunlight. Some polymers become unstable under prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet component of natural daylight. 

Integration Challenges: Old and New

Farmers are keen to take advantage of the latest advances in smart agriculture, but there are challenges when the time comes to integrate the new technology into conventional farming applications. The latest generation of agricultural vehicles bear only a passing resemblance to vintage equipment. Just as the family car has grown in complexity, so too have tractors and other farming platforms. Modern farmers already have a wealth of systems at their fingertips, from precision GPS navigation to the latest embedded vision systems that allow real time monitoring of operations.

The rise of the smart farm will provide access to yet more data, and the modern tractor will be designed to connect with cloud via 5G communication technology. Designers need to find solutions that incorporate complex computing equipment into automotive applications. The combination of low voltage, high current equipment with sensitive high-speed electronic devices means that the correct choice of connectivity is vital.

Designers of brand-new vehicles will be able to integrate technology into a dedicated installation.  However, the cost of agricultural machinery is so high that many farmers will not have the luxury of investing in new vehicles. There will be a need to integrate existing equipment into the smart farm network, resulting in the challenge of connecting new technology with old platforms. Controls, sensors, and vision systems will all need to be added to equipment that could potentially be decades old.

Solutions: RF Expertise

The revolution in smart agriculture is providing farmers with a huge leap in capability, leading to improved yield and more efficient use of our planet’s limited resources. The same revolution is seeing highly sophisticated devices being deployed into very harsh environments and being integrated into a highly diverse range of platforms.

Designers are turning to companies like Molex who have a proven track record of creating robust, high performance solutions for connectivity in tough conditions. With a global footprint and expertise in a wide range of disciplines, Molex can provide connector systems that combine the reliability of the automotive industry and the high performance of the latest wireless communication systems. Whether a standard component or a customized design, Molex has the technology, supply chain and customer focus to provide the ideal solution for this exciting industry. Contact Molex to find out how our expertise can provide the solutions you need for the latest smart farming designs.

Senior Director of Product Management and Marketing