The use of GPS technology, coupled with the power and precision of hydraulics, ensures modern farming success.
By Josh Cosford, Contributing Editor
It’s challenging to find an industry older than agriculture.
Humans have been farming for over twelve millennia based on current estimates, making agriculture easily more mature than all other industries outside of carpentry. Civilization’s need for nourishment is unlikely to wane, all but guaranteeing our agriculture industry receives the latest technology to keep up with population growth.
The tools at the farmer’s disposal continue to expand in leaps, where particular technologies reshape the industry as a whole. The scythe, cotton gin, and combine harvester were responsible for marked improvements in crop yields and processing. Technology offers us exponentially higher productivity, so it’s no surprise that the past few decades realized advancements to improve agricultural machinery as well.
Mega-machines need big power
Many people are entirely blind to the scope of technology offered to the Ag industry. The small farm you pass on a country drive does little to represent the scope of advanced farming, especially concerning machinery. The hobby tractor pulling a single-bottom plow hardy represents the state of machinery exploited by vast farms spanning thousands of acres.
In fact, the purchase price of a single large tractor may surpass the cost of purchasing a small farm. If a hobby tractor offers little more than a hitch, PTO and one or two hydraulic remotes, what does a fully specced, modern tractor the price of a hypercar offer? A whole lot, as it turns out.
Much of what you get in a million-dollar tractor is neither specific to hydraulic nor related to advanced technology. You get very large diesel powerplants to the tune of 13 liters or more of displacement, perhaps with B20 biodiesel capability. Expect 500 or 600 hp, 4WD and Tier 4 Final compliance. The technology to provide a high-horsepower tractor with Tier 4 Final compliance could quickly fill the space of this entire article. But know that off-highway engines are just as technologically advanced as those in light vehicles.
The mega-tractor employs an impressive array of hydraulic power and sophistication. Expect well over a hundred gallons per minute of flow from their pressure-compensated, loading-sensing piston pumps. Flow may be shared with up to eight pairs of hydraulic outputs, providing powerful and accurate control of attachments. Sophisticated electrohydraulic draft control ensures attachment depth remains constant with no operator interaction.
Speaking of control; the days of directional control valves, or even pilot joysticks, taking up valuable operating room in the cab are long gone. Expect fully electro-proportional control with programmable user profiles. Nearly all tractor operations lay at the operator’s fingertips, making even the most difficult ISOBUS-compliant implement easy to control.
ISOBUS is a communication protocol standardized for Ag equipment. The ISOBUS system permits the computer systems in tractors and implements to speak to each other regardless of the machine manufacturer. ISOBUS provides freedom to the farmer, no longer married to a specific manufacturer with proprietary control systems.
The modern tractor offers display systems rivaling your iPad (in fact, some tractors indeed use actual Apple iPads). With ISOBUS, the implement or machine sends the same user interface to the display, which works and appears as it would on any other machine. Implement manufacturers now offer sophisticated control entirely customizable on the fly from the tractor’s touchscreen. Monitoring and then changing the boom geometry of your sprayer, for example, is easily accomplished by the operator when sensors detect poor geopositioning after a turn.
Some of the most demanding hydraulic applications are large air seeders, the largest of which span more than 100 ft wide and weigh upwards of 35 tons. Able to plant over a hundred seed rows at once with hydraulic cylinders automatically controlling seed and fertilizer depth, the entire control system links to the ISOBUS interface inside the tractor. The operator can monitor and change seed depth and spacing, even mapping where seed skips or multiples occur. The air seeder tank scales employ load cells to measure the mass of the seeds left in the tank, and the controller extrapolates the overall application rate.
GPS and sensors enable machine control
Autoguidance systems proudly stand atop the stage with previous technological advancements in agriculture. Using global positioning and elaborate machine control hardware, a tractor may follow intricately mapped, hands-free routes through a field. The farmer will pre-route the guidance via computer using high-resolution satellite maps. Further, personnel back at the office may upload new maps or guidance on the fly when field conditions change, such as changing weather or field conditions.
Field mapping grows upon the GPS autoguidance systems that offer accurate maps of fields and combines those maps with real-world data on crop yields. During harvesting, sensors measure and track crop yield in real-time and maps are uploaded to show the farmer current and historical field performance.
Areas with low yield get flagged as a concern, so the farmer may sample soil after to see if it’s a soil concern. There may be a drain tile line or other reason for the poor yield. However, weeds, insects and diseases are more than likely the concern. Satellite imagery allows in-season expression of poor performing areas, which allows the farmer to inspect for problems.
Maps may be overlayed to cross-reference previous seasons. Springtime applications of herbicide, fertilizer, cation exchange capacity etc., can be compared to see how yields were affected by changes in the application. Although field mapping is nearly as old as global positioning systems, today’s systems offer precision and ease of implementation for even the smallest farms.
Hydraulics is the cornerstone
The current technological summit enjoyed in the agricultural industry could not have been realized without hydraulics. The power density and reliability that made the farm a perfect home to hydraulics for so long continues to offer those same benefits despite electrification. The dozens of hydraulic cylinders used in the previously mentioned seeders run high pressure to maintain their compact size while also reducing the mass that is best enjoyed by the payload.
Furthermore, the addition of inexpensive linear and pressure transducers used in conjunction with high-pressure actuators offers force and positioning feedback to improve the accuracy of seed, fertilizer and other treatments. Imagine combining field mapping with fertilizer application rates accurate to a quarter of an inch, then using that data in the following seasons to improve yields exponentially. If you’re skeptical of this technology, ask a farm employing these methods the scope of their yield improvements.
The future of technology in agriculture will continue to expand at the same rate as other industries, including but not limited to, Industry 4.0. In some ways, agriculture has exploited big data with better results than many other industries. Combined with the wave of technologies such as augmented reality to help farmers or untrained technicians diagnose and repair complicated hydraulic control systems, the combination of electronics and powerful hydraulics offers solutions to ensure the next hundred years of farming will continue to increase its rate of productivity faster than us humans can populate.