Automated documentation by connecting machinery

Internet of Things (IoT) solutions offer new possibilities for every farmer to work more efficiently, identify economic potentials and to ensure safe documentation – independently of age or manufacturer of machinery.

In the framework of constantly increasing regulations and rising economic pressure farmers face a great challenge to document all actions and measures in an easy and comprehensive manner. Good documentation is necessary on the one hand to prove the fulfilment of regulations, and on the other hand to identify potentials for increasing efficiency and process optimisation on basis of reliable and comprehensive data. Subsequently good documentation builds sustainable decision support. Farming 4.0 and specifically the Internet of Things (IoT) offer solutions to digitise farm machinery and equipment and thus document the entire operation by increased integration of IT and communications technology with agricultural production. Using smart, networked systems promises to increase productivity and efficiency. However, much of the farming equipment in use today is still not, or only partly, digitised.

Photo: 365Farmnet
Photo: 365Farmnet

Bridging the technological gap

To ensure all farm machinery and equipment ‘can talk to each other’ and also have these talks documented automatically, smart IoT solutions are necessary that bridge the gap between digital and analogue technology. On the way to such networked data and automated documentation farmers face some challenges.

Farmers in Europe use large numbers of tractors, and many of these machines are old. A large number of the tractors used are currently not state-of-the-art and are not network-enabled. Even when machinery is network-enabled a great challenge remains: When aiming to connect machinery it is often the case that digital products are neither compatible across different manufacturers (interoperable) nor networkable. Some standalone solutions exist but those are very difficult to integrate into an overall digital farm management system.

Another factor that has to be taken into consideration when digitising farms is the practicability of digital devices. Ideally, digital applications are intuitive to use and hardware components are easily purchased, installed and networked. It is important that the time and investment involved in introducing a digital solution is commensurate with the added value that results from using it, particularly in the peak growing season. Ideally, documentation takes place while working without any disturbances or needs to act. The equipment record itself and sends data to a platform where it is documented and networked.

Requirements for digital solutions

Further obstacles on the way to a connected farm are deficiencies in digital infrastructure. In rural areas throughout Europe there is often only a limited mobile signal or landline internet connection. Therefore digital solutions for automatic documentation need to incorporate mechanisms to function offline.

There is a high demand for solutions that retrofit machinery and ensure its connectivity in order to integrate it into the digital world. Solutions created to do this need to be standardised, robust, universal and interoperable, as well as being capable of being installed and used with no special/extra training. They also need to take into account the inadequate telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas and develop solutions that work even where there is no mobile phone signal across parts of the areas under cultivation.

A first step when digitising farms, data have to be collected and transmitted to be used. ‘Beacons’ have been set up as transmitters that send their signals using an energy-saving Bluetooth protocol. These beacons transmit their signals over a radius of just under 30 metres. The signals are detected and decoded by a compatible app on a smartphone, tablet or computer. When a Bluetooth-compatible device comes within range of the transmitter the data are collected and processed. If installed on equipment, tractors, combine harvesters, lorries or at a loading point, they allow a vehicle or device to be clearly identified. The crop’s route from the field to the barn is documented seamlessly. Every vehicle, whatever its age, manufacturer or purpose, can be fitted with one of these beacons.

Beacons can send a position relative to the receiver. However, they cannot send an independent geographic position. An app collecting, networking and transmitting the signal sent by beacons can add a geographic position to the data by using an integrated positioning system such as GPS.

Figure 1 – How does the system work?

1. The beacon is activated and permanently paired with the app, then installed

on the analogue agricultural equipment.

2. If the Bluetooth-enabled device with the associated app on the tractor comes within range, they pair. Now both the position of the tractor and the duration of shared activity are collected and saved in the FMIS.

3. The information is available to all users authorised for the account in the farm management software.

4. All authorised users can track work in the farm management software.

Automatic documentation of all machinery

365Farmnet – developer of the farm management platform by the same name – created a practical application of such a smart IoT system consisting of Bluetooth beacon, app and FMIS. The 365Active system is made up by 365ActiveBoxes containing beacons, the 365Active app and a smart application in the platform offering booking proposals and detailed analyses.

As shown in Figure 1, the system is an IoT application that works by networking all connected components: The boxes can be installed on any farm equipment such as plough, manure spreader or cultivator but also on buildings, for example at a loading point for manure. The device then continuously transmits its ID from that position. When a Bluetooth-enabled device such as a tablet installed on a tractor comes within range, the transmitter and receiver pair with each other using the app. Both the position of the tractor (via the mobile device) and the duration of ‘shared’ activity are collected and saved in encrypted form in the Cloud, a backup data server. The app collects the data even when no internet connection is available and synchronises with the platform once connection is available again. Thus, the documentation is automated and comprehensive once the system is installed and the app is activated. Farmers can document automatically while working in the field. Also, farmers can at any time see real-time information about the location and route travelled by the machines.

A great benefit of this form of automatic documentation is that it enables thorough task verification and safeguards valuable data. Thus, allowing for easy proof of measures and setting the basis for meaningful analysis. Recording and analysing working hours, downtime and travel time can for example reveal potential savings in machine utilisation. Additionally, calculating machine costs facilitates precise cost posting for different stages of operation.

Using smart IoT solutions such as the presented system can operate as a turnkey for Agriculture 4.0. It is a simple, cost-effective, robust and secure technological solution and can be used to digitise analogue and mixed machinery incrementally. Through universal applicability and low investment costs the system is open to all agribusinesses, the family farm and agricultural cooperatives alike.