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DRM Software Technology

Farmers Struggling With High-Tech Farm Equipment 194

An anonymous reader writes: Farming is a difficult profession. One of the constants throughout the generations is that if you're working out in the field all day, machinery eventually breaks down. Farmers tend to deal with this harsh reality by becoming handy at basic repair — but that strategy is starting to fail in the digital age. Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, writes about the new difficulties in repairing your broken tractors and other equipment. Not only do you often need experience in computer software, but proprietary technology actively blocks you from making repairs.

"Dave asked me if there was some way to bypass a bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up. But fixing Dave's sensor problem required fiddling around in the tractor's highly proprietary computer system—the tractor's engine control unit (tECU): the brains behind the agricultural beast. One hour later, I hopped back out of the cab of the tractor. Defeated. I was unable to breach the wall of proprietary defenses that protected the tECU like a fortress. I couldn't even connect to the computer. Because John Deere says I can't." Wiens also tells us about Farm Hack, a community that has sprung up to build a library of open source tools and knowledge for dealing with high-tech modification and repair in agriculture.
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Farmers Struggling With High-Tech Farm Equipment

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  • by Isaac-1 ( 233099 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:35AM (#48997631)

    This is likely one of those cases where the manufacturer is not to blame, instead it is likely federal regulations that require these systems to be locked down and only adjusted by authorized personel, I know this is the case with many new industrial engines where emissions compliance requires that field technicians no longer be able to adjust certain parameters, instead all these settings are locked down at the factory.

    • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:46AM (#48997737) Homepage

      It might be regulations, but I doubt the manufacturers are too cut up about having to supply their own service personal, equipment and parts at a high price to solve these problems.

      In europe things went the opposite way , with cars anyway. The EU mandated anyone must be able to interrogate the ECU, clone a keyless fob and service the vehicle via the ODBC2 port. Which is fine, except that now any thief with some cheap equipment can break into keyless cars, clone a key fob within a minute and drive away with it.

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        Interesting is that ODB has its origin in the USofA (California). They mandated OBDII 1996. Europe followed in 2001 (wikipedia [wikipedia.org])

        (Bluetooth) dongles are widely available, just as software to read the data (Free, open and closed) for all major OS.

        • by cdrudge ( 68377 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:35AM (#48998139) Homepage

          (Bluetooth) dongles are widely available, just as software to read the data (Free, open and closed) for all major OS.

          Dongles are cheap. The information they give you is fairly useless in diagnosing specific hardware faults, sensor codes, etc unless you have the factory proprietary software.

          Want to modulate the ABS module to purge air and replace the brake fluid? Sorry.

          Want to see which wheel is giving you the TPMS low pressure error even though they are all properly inflated? Sorry.

          Want to see specifically why a code is being thrown that disengages the AWD? Sorry.

          Well, sorry for me unless I get a Tech2 scanner maybe for $1500 used, or $4000 new off fleabay.

          • by AndroSyn ( 89960 )

            If you have a VW group car, there is always VCDS [ross-tech.com]. You can usually get started with a $250 USB cable and their software. It's pretty much the recommended tool/software to use for Volkwagens.

        • by mlts ( 1038732 )

          Dongles are cheap, but only give generic info for the most part. A lot of it is hidden behind a wall that only the car maker's own software can access.

          For example, on a Mercedes Sprinter, there is one level of resetting fault codes that can be done by a Scanguage. Then there is a different level if the vehicle goes into limp-home mode, it takes a different type of reset to fix that.

          Of course, EPA regulations come into play so it isn't all the auto maker's fault. For example, they are forced to have a mec

        • by stox ( 131684 )

          "1980: General Motors implements a proprietary interface and protocol for testing of the Engine Control Module (ECM) on the vehicle assembly line. The 'assembly line diagnostic link' (ALDL) protocol communicates at 160 bit/s Implemented on California vehicles for the 1980 model year, and the rest of the United States in 1981. The only available function for the owner is "Blinky Codes" that transmit the Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC) with the blinking pattern of the "Check Engine" (MIL) light."

          • One of my first tech gigs was remanufacturing ECL's for AC/Delco. Our test console was a big box with nearly one hundred blinky lights! At least they were labeled so we knew what the blinky light was for. This was around 1989 and GM had transitioned a lot of their ECM's to SMT parts. So the ECM was a semi-flexible PCB with SMT IC's riding in a tin can (literally) coated in rubber cement. Vibrations from road conditions caused intermittent failures on a grand scale. By the time I left I was "diagnosing" over
          • Fast-forward about 16 years, when OBD-II was federally mandated.
      • by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:15AM (#48997985) Homepage
        More to the point, if ti was regulations it is regulations that agribusiness spent millions campaigning on.
      • by Xest ( 935314 )

        "Which is fine, except that now any thief with some cheap equipment can break into keyless cars, clone a key fob within a minute and drive away with it."

        Are you sure that's actually true given that car crime has seen massive decline in recent years? Even if true it's obviously not having any negative impact in practice.

        • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @12:39PM (#48998629)

          "Which is fine, except that now any thief with some cheap equipment can break into keyless cars, clone a key fob within a minute and drive away with it."

          Are you sure that's actually true given that car crime has seen massive decline in recent years? Even if true it's obviously not having any negative impact in practice.

          Actually, I've recently read several articles on the Intertubes supporting GP statement -- search for: keyless ignition problems. You are also correct in that car thefts were in steep decline over the past years (one article mentions this specifically) but it's due to RFID chips in the keys and Immobilizer systems that require a successful ping from that chip to start the car, or enable the fuel pump - in the case of Hondas, perhaps others.

          Several (many?) auto have the ability to program blank fobs from the diagnostic port. Thieves still have to break *into* the car however - usually by breaking the glass. And since cars with keyless ignition do *not* have column locks (because, no key) ... Car Theft Made Easy(ier) 101.

          I was researching this because I'm not a fan of keyless ignition [aka: Push (Button|to) Start ] , especially as it's becoming more and more standard on all trim lines, and I wanted to know if vendors are/would offer keyed options or workarounds. I carry the keys for my two Hondas on my keychain in my back pocket and wouldn't be able to if they were those bulky fobs. Plus driving around with the keys in my pocket seems uncomfortable. In addition to all the real/potential problems reported about keyless ignition and/or fobs - and extra expense of the system.

          I'm not a Luddite, just don't really buy into the "problem" this is suppose to be solving. My keys are small, reliable and dead simple to use. Keyless ignition as an option is fine, but as a requirement is simply stupid.

      • by jopsen ( 885607 )

        Which is fine, except that now any thief with some cheap equipment can break into keyless cars, clone a key fob within a minute and drive away with it.

        Comon that's just because manufacturers implement security through obscurity. Nothing prevents the keyless fob from containing a private key. There are many ways to make a key infrastructure such that only authorized third parties can clone keys. Just this is manufacturer incompetence/carelessness.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by BreakBad ( 2955249 )

      I hate Vogon food.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It's all in the name of Emissions.

      I've worked for a competitor of Deere and we spent an inordinate amount of time putting in protections so that if people tried to bypass emissions equipment the engines would show a fault.

      It's to combat the types of guys that would just go in and cut off the catalytic converter.

    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:54AM (#48997807) Homepage

      While this is undoubtedly true for the engines, for the rest of the machine it may or not be valid. But TFA misses one enormous issue - legal liability. Look at that 100K John Deere combine. It grosses something like 20,000 pounds and has enough horsepower to flatten a pickup truck. It's all controlled by a couple of joysticks in air conditioned cab. It's pretty simple to use.

      A lot of thought went into to putting it all together. The 'unnecessary' hydraulic sensor might be the one that keeps the disks from slicing into the cab when the boom is up. Or some other obscure but important safety feature. Yes, farmers have been fixing things since time immemorial. And farmers have been slicing off various bits of their own (or, more often, their kids) anatomy because they bypassed safety features. If you have a machine with a couple of dozen motors, 100 sensors and one giant hydraulic pump, you don't advocate Joe Farmer randomly disconnecting things. Nanny state has been pretty active trying to lessen the amount of carnage done to farm workers. I am unsure of the success, but a lot of the sensors in any industrial device are designed to prevent excessive stupid from occurring.

      Now, Deere can, and likely should, have a come to Jesus moment where they actually work with the end user - better diagnostics. Redundant sensors. FedEx the part to the farm rather than the dealer. End user serviceable components. Lots of other things. And it looks like the market is actually working like it's supposed to (I guess that happens). The complicated big rigs aren't as in demand as simpler things. If Deere is smart, then they will learn from their mistakes. If they're not, they'll go bankrupt^Hget a bailout from Congress.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        While this is undoubtedly true for the engines, for the rest of the machine it may or not be valid. But TFA misses one enormous issue - legal liability.

        Good point. Farm equipment, like most industrial equipment, is getting more and more complex. Tractors now drive themselves as the follow a master tractor around a farm. As a result, it becomes necessary to make sure the control systems perform exactly as designed and not let people make changes for whatever reasons because they don't know what will happen.

      • by CaptBubba ( 696284 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:53AM (#48998263)

        Yeah if the ECU was shutting the tractor down when the sensor when out it likely was important for proper operation or safety. For the most part if it is an unimportant sensor the new machines will complain about it but let you continue operating it, perhaps with the system controlled by the sensor disabled or limited in some manner. Similarly to how a new car will show a warning light or enter limp mode for minor sensors being out but refuse to crank for more important ones.

        Everyone thinks "oh its a tractor, it is simple" but these things are very, very far removed from the things you would see in quaint rural settings shown in movies. It is an extremely complex, powerful, and dangerous machine and they do kill people with depressing regularity. The controls for the hydraulic system are something you really don't want to have people monkeying around with as overpressure/overtemp could cause damage to the implement and rams or even (and I've seen this happen) a leak the engine compartment which sprays onto the exhaust manifold totals the machine at best or kills the operator at worst. Underpressure could cause the implement to drop unexpectedly and dump a few tons of steel and blades on an unfortunate worker or cause overheating (as some systems use the hydraulic system to run the engine fan).

        The real problem in this is that the sensor keeps going out for whatever reason. Deere parts aren't cheap but he should talk with his equipment dealer about having a spare on hand at the farm that he can swap out himself if it fails. Takes two days waiting for the part down to an hour or so to swap it.

      • Thats some lovely F.U.D. there. Truth is new combines aren't any safer than the old ones were just harder to repair, forcing cash and time strapped farmers to run malfunctioning equipment oftentimes not even knowing precisely what is wrong now that everything is obfuscated behind proprietary software.

        P.S. Deere has been closing factories all over in addition to seasonal shutdowns lately. I think the magical mystical invisible hand of market forces is a little much to hope for, given other historic example
        • There's clearly a market for tractors and equipment, no matter how modern and complex, to be easily and cheaply field-repairable by farmers, and most especially, quickly.

          I wonder if it will happen.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Wanted to post this. Grew up in a small village. More farmers than anybody else. If they could, they would disable shit. An example: Wood-splitting machine requireing two buttons be pressed at the same time? Zip-tie one down. Guy got his free arm ripped off and bled out before anybody could find him.

    • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:00AM (#48997861)

      This isn't actually the case. I know of no Federal regulation that disallows adjustments by a particular party. All that the regulations require is that there be no unauthorized modifications to the system. They don't place the onus on anyone to prevent such modifications in any particular way.

    • by YetanotherUID ( 4004939 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:03AM (#48997885)
      Yeah, because an industry with one of the highest equipment-related death/injury rates [modernfarmer.com] for its workers and habitually and flagrantly skirting protections [nytimes.com] designed to protect the public from harm is one that should be allowed to regulate itself. GREAT IDEA!
    • by mlts ( 1038732 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:39AM (#48998167)

      It is both. Some manufacturers use the added regulations (take DEF and DPF mandates for example for diesel emissions) in order to ensure repeat business for their repair shops, as well as planned obsolescence when the ECU dies and there isn't another to be found, as it was an ASIC that was fabbed only for a span of 2-3 model years and even an ECM firmware upgrade wouldn't change that.

      The Feds mandated things like nonadjustable governors so one can't adjust the RPM of some items unless done manually by twisting the throttle rod. However, some companies are happy to take that even further to ensure people come back to get stuff fixed.

      There is blowback to this. For example, a RV refrigerator that runs on propane made 10-15 years ago which uses a pilot light can cost more than a new refrigerator, just because it requires no 12 volt current to keep the contents cold, while newer models often have issues with the control board.

      How does this get fixed? With state and federal governments still looking to add more regulations compounded with companies that want their own "DRM" to keep the next quarter looking good, the only real solution will be for relatively small startups to hit the market with simple products that do the same thing, but don't have all the bells and whistles. For fridges, companies like Unique Gas Products come to mind, who may not have appliances that have the latest 5000 pixel count in the LCD screen... but keep the contents in the fridge cold without issue.

      The future will probably wind up people having to fudge to get around various regulations. For example, the EPA ban on wood stoves will just mean that a building gets built with a propane stove, which gets swapped out for a wood stove the second the inspectors leave. If this isn't the case, there will be a heavy market for people to purchase jailbreaks for their appliances and vehicles... with bounties going up as steep as what was paid for access to root on the latest Samsung devices.

    • by jythie ( 914043 )
      Regulation might be a nice pretext here, but I am skeptical that manufacturers were forced against their will to close their systems so that 3rd party shops could not repair them or produce replacement parts. Given how powerful their lobby is, any regulation that is in place was in no small part written by those same manufacturers.
    • by SETY ( 46845 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @12:40PM (#48998649)

      The engine is just one "node" on the bus and in my experience isn't really a problem very often. Typical problem would beit something else on the bus, ie switch for hydraulic valve stepper motor.
      There are basically 4 tractor companies and they are all world-wide, so yes EPA matters and has to be met, as well as everywhere else.
      When your tractor is down and rain is coming you want quick solutions.
      New tractors have a big lcd screen, they could have more online solutions and all documentation, etc. but service is where dealerships make their money and they want you to call them and pay 120$ an hour to have a kid sit in the cab with a laptop and read how to fix it in JD service advisor. A customer can't legally buy the tools the dealer has to fix there tractor. This is wrong and should be illegal.
      The arguments about emissions tempering are valid, but there are existing laws for that, just because one way is easier to enforce doesn't make it right.

  • ... if the farm equipment ran iOS. You'd just have to submit a bug report, and it would be fixed in the next update!

    Oh, wait... That would be when iFarm 12.4 gets released.... and that's not scheduled until the iPlow 9S is announced...

  • by KevReedUK ( 1066760 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:37AM (#48997649)

    Assuming he means a sensor to detect whether the driver is sat and the seat, surely a heavy enough bag ought to do the job?!?

    • by jandrese ( 485 )
      Given that it is a safety feature, I'm guessing they made it difficult to bypass on purpose. On the other hand, knowing how farmers actually work that could be quite an inconvenience if the machine shuts off every time you stand up for a second to just get a better line of sight on something. However, I'm surprised he opted for the "patch the software" route first, since simply shorting the pressure sensor with a resistor would probably work just as well and be far closer to a farmer's existing skillset.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        Exactly, The guy in the article was not the brightest person. And yes you are correct, you can fool the sensor a lot easier than trying to change the code. and if you were really bright, you made it a plug in so that you can undo the chance in 10 seconds in case you DID need the factory to come and fix something.

        • by tibit ( 1762298 )

          The guy in the article is exactly the kind of an engineer I wouldn't hire. Doesn't see the forest for the trees. Code isn't always an answer, dummy.

        • Exactly-- Most sensors create a voltage or electric pulse signature of some kind.

          EG-- an O2 sensor produces a weak voltage signal.

          The ones that produce pulse signals (Like a camshaft positioning sensor) are probably not smart to try to fudge past, since they are required for the engine to fire properly.

          O2 and other emissions sensors? Easy to bypass. Just put a suitable voltage limiting resistor off the direct power line, and feed it to the sensor input lead. Booya. Engine things it has plenty of oxygen. (J

    • by quetwo ( 1203948 )

      I'm just taking a guess that the sensor is broken -- so regardless of how much weight is on it, it sends the signal back to the computer that you aren't in the seat.

    • This IS NOT farmville. This is a farm.

      Kids these days. Never saw Green Acres [wikipedia.org] on TV. They know nothing.

    • by Barny ( 103770 )

      Depending on what currency you are converting to. For AU$, you are correct. But for US$, your two pence is worth 3c.

      As for the topic... yeah, I never planned to actually address it.

    • ... Should have guessed that would happen...

      My comment was something of a play on words, not so much a suggested fix to the problem in TFA. I, personally, haven't RTFA yet (crappy mobile internet connection).

      Here in the UK, bum is almost always used as a colloquialism for what Americans call their butt/ass/fanny/whatever...

      The humour intended in my comment appears to have been lost in translation.

    • "Bum" means "broken," not "buttocks!"

  • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:39AM (#48997669)

    If the demand is really there, then go fill it.

    • by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:51AM (#48997779) Homepage Journal

      If the demand is really there, then go fill it.

      They would go broke. The reason all of the sensors are there is because when they didn't have sensors, and some farmer misused they tool and got hurt, they sued the manufacturer and won lots of money. So now there are sensors to make sure you have a bum in the seat, that you don't back up with blades engaged, etc., etc. Nothing is easy to maintain anymore because society no longer wants individuals to take responsibility for their own poor judgment.
      There is a difference between what a manufacturer should be responsible for and what an owner should be responsible for. For example: Engine throws a rod, causing shrapnel to injure operator. Manufacturer is responsible. Another example: Equipment allows operator to get off and stroll around in front of equipment and operator gets run over. Operator is responsible. Unfortunately, when operators misuse equipment through poor judgment, the courts side with the operator, so the manufacturer is forced to remove functionality from all users because one user is unable to exercise the commons sense required to operate the machinery.

      • by mysidia ( 191772 )

        Unfortunately, when operators misuse equipment through poor judgment, the courts side with the operator, so the manufacturer is forced to remove functionality from all users because one user is unable to exercise the commons sense required to operate the machinery.

        Instead of removing features.... why don't we require that operators receive proper training?

        So they have to sign off and pass a test on among other things a safety course. And the manufacturer can maintain the documentation that the operat

      • by jedidiah ( 1196 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @12:45PM (#48998695) Homepage

        > They would go broke. The reason all of the sensors are there is because when they didn't have sensors, and some farmer misused they tool and got hurt, they sued the manufacturer

        Quit being such a corporate tool.

        The tort aspect of this is likely completely irrelevant since these are likely highly self reliant types used to fending for themselves for various reasons. Even in the city, this excuse "but we will get sued" is usually just bullshit. Lazy people are just trying to take advantage of the pervasive anti-lawyer propaganda.

        Quit swimming in the kool-aid.

        • > They would go broke. The reason all of the sensors are there is because when they didn't have sensors, and some farmer misused they tool and got hurt, they sued the manufacturer

          Quit being such a corporate tool.

          The tort aspect of this is likely completely irrelevant since these are likely highly self reliant types used to fending for themselves for various reasons. Even in the city, this excuse "but we will get sued" is usually just bullshit. Lazy people are just trying to take advantage of the pervasive anti-lawyer propaganda.

          Quit swimming in the kool-aid.

          In these cases, the plaintiff rarely starts the case. Instead, some lawyer reads the news in the paper and jumps at the opportunity to rake in some cash, as long as they can convince the plaintiff that it's in their best interest.

        • Well those self-reliant types can buy a tractor that they can maintain themselves, they just don't get the latest and greatest with it.

          No one is requiring them to buy a new John Deere tractor, it just ends up being easier to do so.

        • They would go broke. The reason all of the sensors are there is because when they didn't have sensors, and some farmer misused they tool and got hurt, they sued the manufacturer

          Quit being such a corporate tool.

          The tort aspect of this is likely completely irrelevant since these are likely highly self reliant types used to fending for themselves for various reasons.

          You've been reading waaay to much fiction, or you're a "tool" of romantic idealists. The vast majority of modern farmers (I.E. those able to aff

    • I lived on a farm growing up, and everyone I knew did 100% of their farm equipment repairs themselves. I can just picture how pissed these guys are when they can't fix something themselves lol. I wonder if there is a huge price increase on used 1980's-1990's tractors.
    • The above comment to this is on regulation.

      Regulation protects the largest corporations more than it ever will protect your safety.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:43AM (#48997693)
    As a current IT guy who grew up on a large farm in the middle of nowhere, I can confirm that this is true. I've seen the dramatic changes and advances that technology has brought to the agricultural world, and almost universally it has been implemented such that you don't really own what you really own. Proprietary software, interfaces, programs, hardware -- you name it. And...it's not just tractors, combines, or other mechanical items -- it includes software/hardware to automate feeding lots, climate controls, GPS integration, etc. There's little to no open source, open specifications, API availability, or comprehensible documentation available. It's a clusterfscking nightmare, and requires you to take anything that breaks or malfunctions to a certified dealer to have them (and only them) work on it for whatever they deem the price to be that day.

    Now there are some really amazing advancements that have come along in agriculture over the past 20 - 30 years, but in many ways technology is turning the clock back on American agriculture and making it into the modern indentured servant model, especially when you add in all the BS that Monsanto has brought/caused in the agriculture world. I feel bad for my family as well as other farmers today.
    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:09AM (#48997923) Homepage

      Since farming is Big Business, would you expect much different? Most of these companies are really just putting a computer hooked up to some hydraulic doohicky on a piece of standard farming equipment or trying to use a standard commercial product such as GPS or a weather station in a farming situation. Open everything up and the next guy down the street can program the Aurduno and sell the same thing.

      What I'm a bit surprised hasn't happened is an analogy to boating. The NMEA standard [wikipedia.org] allows manufacturers of various bits of marine electronics to talk to each other. After the usual startup problems of everyone's implementation being subtly different (Hi Garmin, you nitwits) it pretty much works as advertised. I still can't open up the guts to my chartplotter and do anything helpful, but if I don't like the way it is working, I can toss it and get another one and keep the rest of the network.

      Even the marine engine people are finally figuring this out. While they don't use the OBDC spec like cars (for whatever reason), it is now possible to buy the adapter and software for engine diagnostics (most of the time, except for you idiots at Suzuki). ** I suppose it will just take continuing pressure to get manufacturers to streamline these things.

      ** Just a friendly note to the people at Mercury and Yamaha. MS-DOS has not been a commercially acceptable operating system in some decades. Shall we ramp it up a bit?

  • by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @10:46AM (#48997723) Homepage
    Most 'farms' in america are part of multinational food corporations like Cargill and ADM. They have motor pools to repair fleets of farm equipment like tractors and harvesters. firmware updates and engine maintenance are often performed by representatives of the companies that manufacture the equipment. IT and information systems departments handle things like GPS and computer software and hardware related to the harvest. small, agrarian farming is almost obsolete in America unless you look into how poulty and pork are raised. In these cases its small contract farmers working for larger entities like Hormell. Even these small farmers though are forced into the disposable economy of modernization that takes them out of the direct path of machines they can work on.

    Growing up on a farm in Ohio I remember having to weld equipment back together. I remember cleaning carbureators, hammering out feeders, and changing fluids. It was not fun, and it often meant drastic inefficiencies like having to leave hay out too long or work two days straight trying to get things in order after a break. In a lot of ways modern equipment is more resillient and not as prone to problems. these engine computers save a ton of fuel and effort. coupling, power takeoff, gears, speed, you name it and its probably in the hands of the computer. If i had to do it all over, I'd miss my old ford tractor but i wouldn't miss how it sputtered in cold weather.
    • by halivar ( 535827 )

      And while it's sad to see this kind of farming go away, with its hard work and the romance we tend to associate with it, and we view the modern mechanized agricultural machine as an extension of a heartless corporate machine (which it is), it is nevertheless the means by which we feed the world and an ever-expanding population that the older, less efficient but more human approach ever could.

      And for the world's longest run-on sentence, I denounce myself.

      • The modern food multinationals use his romantic notion of farming to their advantage every day. Look at their advertising.

        We still give millions of dollars to fams because of that romantic notion. As usuall the corporate welfare goes to the guy in the CEO's office and not the guy in the overalls.

    • You can thank the FDR administration for setting us down this path with New Deal legislation explicitly designed to make food production more like factories, with standardized, homogenized output -- to say nothing of the price-supports and other handouts to big agribusiness which continue to this day...

    • I'm not sure where you're getting your information. I've spent most of my life in agricultural areas, and virtually every farm I see is owned and run by local farmers. From the EPA:

      According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the vast majority of farms in this country (87%) are owned and operated by individuals or families. The next largest category of ownership is partnerships (8%). The "Corporate" farms account for only 4% of U.S. farms and 1 percent are owned by other-cooperative, estates or trusts etc

  • The solution to any problem is more immigration.

  • Does farm equipment need these "protected computers" anyway?

    Just a license to print money for the manufacturer...

  • I've seen this on heavy equiptment as well as other things. Usually, dusconecting the sendor altogether gets around the problem but sometimes it can create other issues. For instance, a coolant level sensor will shut the engine off if it reports both to much or to little coolant but disconecting it altogether will just throw a check engine light. An intake manifold pressure sensor can shut the enginr off too. Disconecting it will derate the power, stop the turbo from working and pretty much stop you from do

  • Only outlaws will have fixed machines....I'll just leave this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
  • I still can replace the brakepads and discs. Change the oil and things like that. But that's about it. Currently I have a problem with the alarm going at random moments if I lock it. And it is impossible to do a proper debugging. I finally found a unofficial source to get the repair manual so I can look at it but I will have by trial and error, bypassing one censor at the time.

    When all the electronics starts to break down I fear it will be expensive in man hours.

    • I still can replace the brakepads and discs. Change the oil and things like that. But that's about it. Currently I have a problem with the alarm going at random moments if I lock it. And it is impossible to do a proper debugging. I finally found a unofficial source to get the repair manual so I can look at it but I will have by trial and error, bypassing one censor at the time.

      When all the electronics starts to break down I fear it will be expensive in man hours.

      Roger that, but even simple pull and replace jobs can get complicated. MB, for a few model years, had an SBS system that would activate the brakes if the door was opened; which was fine normally but a bit of a problem if you had the brake pads out. BMW requires reseting the computer when a new battery is installed to avoid overcharging it; they only overcharging that occurs when it is rest is the $100 the dealer charges to plug in their computer and rest the control module. Even then, the dealer is paying b

  • by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:35AM (#48998143)
    Slashdot was telling me just a couple months ago [slashdot.org] that "farming has been stuck in a bit of a rut" and "farming has been using techniques that have been handed down from centuries ago". Since Slashdot is never wrong, clearly farmers don't use high-tech equipment. So how can they be struggling to repair it?
  • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @11:37AM (#48998153)

    I spent nearly 15 years in IT before returning to the family farm to work with my brothers. We farm several thousand acres of irrigated land with some large, expensive machines, so I have some experience in this. This article really hits home for me. Forgive some of the jargon, but this is slashdot; you can deal with it.

    Coming from the open source world, computer technology in farming, both in the machines themselves, and the software farmers use, is like stepping back in time 20 years or more. Farm software is a niche market, and companies are pretty jealous of their profits. So mapping software is very expensive and interoperability is a bit difficult. Right now I can pull maps off my machines (Case, John Deere), but they each use different native formats so if I want to do any work in QGIS I have to use the company's individual software (which ironically enough is DRMd even though it comes for free with the machine) to export the data in SHAPE format. Software packages like the SMS mapper can read some manufacturers' data files directly because they licensed the formats. But there's very little info out there on hacking these formats and very few open source hackers know enough about farming and these systems to bring expertise to bear.

    Even worse, all the companies are talking about cloud-based mapping solutions, but that's even more proprietary and closed.

    Companies talk about "open standards" but what they really mean is they export SHAPE files from a computer program. It's really frustrating, but with interest in UAVs, perhaps people will finally crack this barrier.

    As to the machines themselves, there are a number of issues. One is government regulations. Adjusting the timing as the farmer in the article wanted to do is extremely illegal and can get you a huge fine from the EPA if you are caught, which you will be. Because unlike in the automotive world, there aren't a any third-party repair shops with access to the parts, let alone diagnostic equipment. Apparently the EPA requires the manufacturer to report any deviations from the the approved program, and they levy fines. Sounds orwellian, but the EPA doesn't mess around when it comes to pollution regs (and I'm okay with that in theory). Suppose the manufacturers want to cover themselves.

    Someone asked why a company can't spring up to develop hackable machines? There are efforts to this effect.

    http://opensourceecology.org/ [opensourceecology.org]

    But for larger scale farming, it's harder. In the case of engines, the EPA would simply never allow them to market if the parameters that cause an engine to meet EPA regs are allowed to be changed. Regulatory capture has made modern diesels so expensive to develop now, including licensing patented pollution control technologies like the urea injection systems, that it's cheaper for companies to buy an existing engine than to develop their own. So even if I started a hackable tractor company I'd still need to use an engine with an extremely proprietary ECU, and would have to license canbus info to simply connect a transmission to the engine.

    The other part of machines that is jealously guarded is the main canbus that links everything on the tractor. We're talking engine control, transmission control, hydraulic remotes, cab systems, and most importantly, the GPS receiver, guidance computer, and steering valve. The commands that flow on this bus are not yet encrypted (they will be soon, starting in cars I predict), but they are highly proprietary and protected by NDAs. You'd think that with a modern tractor I could take anyone's GPS receiver, mate it with anyone's guidance computer, and control any tractor's steering. Well it's not like that. On John Deere, for example, if I want to use anything other than GreenStar for GPS and guidance (a $10-$20k touch by the way, plus yearly fees for RTK), I have to physically replace the steering valve system with one that the 3rd party system is compatible with. There was a company that rev

    • Mod this guy up. He actually farms and these are all the problems dealt with on a daily basis. The gps/auto steer stuff is the most closed.

    • As I pointed about above, the marine electronics people put together the NMEA spec just to allow various systems to talk to each other. I'm a bit surprised that that hasn't happened in the farming community - especially with data formats, but perhaps combines are typically just bought and used rather than modded up like most boats. (Most recreational and smaller commercial boats are sold bereft of electronics, it's up to the end user to customize the boat depending on taste and requirements.)

      • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @02:01PM (#48999453)

        Interoperability is increasing, but it's not being done in an open way in my opinion. Rather it's being done with cross-licensing of protocols, file formats, etc. Each major machinery company wants to get people into their ecosystem, their cloud. And for GPS each company wants to lock me into a subscription to their service, which I can't easily switch without changing out all the hardware. If you think proprietary software subscriptions are bad (office 365, etc), it's worse here!

        There are some standards including ISO 11783 (known as IsoBus) that standardize the way implements talk to the tractor, to the mapping system, and to the variable rate systems (GPS is involved, but not in a guidance fashion). Though in practice, interoperability is somewhat hit and miss. The other day I plugged my air seeder cart (New Holland) into my John Deere tractor's isobus (we've been using a NH computer monitor added to our other John Deere tractor as an external display), but the Deere computer could only see one of the two devices the cart puts on the bus. Some kind of incompatibility. Pretty sure NH sells a little converter box to tweak the baud rate or something to make it work with Deere's monitor. So it's a bit of a crap shoot.

        A couple of years ago I thought it would be nice to interface a device like a raspberry pi with isobus. There's a GPL library for implementing ISOBUS protocol on Linux. But accessing the ISO documents themselves cost a fair amount of money. Just trying to break into this world to get information seems very difficult. I'm still unsure of the exact nature of the electrical interface. It's a proprietary connector, and I think the signalling is j1939. It's hard to find out without buying expensive SDKs and such. Very frustrating.

        • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @02:13PM (#48999585)

          Just to be clear, and responding to the NMEA comment, when it comes to mapping and field prescriptions, all the major systems will accept GPS from just about any receiver via a serial connection (NMEA or some other). It's the guidance part of the computer that is locked to vendor-specific receivers. There's no reason at all for this vendor lock except to guarantee you will be paying a subscription for correction signals from the vendor. In my mind this area is ripe for disruption. The sooner we can get cheap RTK GPS positioning the better. And even if it means replacing the hydraulic steering valve, if there's an open. hackable GPS guidance system out there, I and many farmers will move to it.

          One guy using a laptop and arduino made his own GPS guidance system. Very cool stuff:
          http://forum.arduino.cc/index.... [arduino.cc]

          So it's still possible to do incredibly cool hacks.

          That said, the proprietary solutions do work very well and are well-integrated

  • Soldiers, park rangers... anyone that works in the/a field.

  • The problem isn't the tech, but the DRM. Today's sensors could make life a lot easier for the DIY repairman, by providing early warning of impending failures and detailed information about what has gone wrong. But no - once again, it serves the need of the corporation to make everything proprietary.

    Linux for Tractors, anyone?

  • by kilfarsnar ( 561956 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @12:13PM (#48998429)
    Remember way back when if you bought something you owned it and could do with it what you pleased? Good times...
    • by sudon't ( 580652 )

      People still seem to think they own the equipment, devices, or media they pay for. In time, they will learn...

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Friday February 06, 2015 @12:17PM (#48998459)

    ... is to do what the aviation industry has moved to. Jet engines are high maintenance, high capital cost pieces of equipment upon which serious revenude depends. So the engine manufacturers offer what is essentially a performance guarantee for a fixed fee. If it breaks, they come out and fix it or replace it. Out of their pocket and within a contracted time. The cost to the operator is somewhat higher, but the risk is reduced. As a result, many engines are equipped with ACARS to report impending problems to the factory maintenance department while still in flight. So they can meet the plane at its destination with repair parts.

    So, do the same for farm equipment. Your John Deere harvester breaks down. You have a contract with John Deere to either get it fixed within a defined time frame or they bring out a loaner. Maintenance is no longer your problem.

  • I've seen them at Denver Stockshow. They are full of GPS maps, computer screens, video feeds etc. Cost as much as a small plane too.
    • by rHBa ( 976986 )
      In Top Gear S09E05 they had a tractor challenge. In the first test each presenter had to start their chosen tractor, hook up a four-wheel trailer and reverse out of the studio's car park. James May was barely able to start his tractor, let alone complete the rest of the test!
  • The same has been true of cars and trucks for more than a decade now. People can't as easily be Saturday morning mechanics, anymore. If something is wrong with your vehicle, you bring it to a technician who can read from your diagnostics port to isolate what the problem is.
  • This is why you see older equipment on farms. First because some of the new high tech gear is too complex and most importantly it's really, really expensive. There are still farmers (granted less than 1000 acres) that are still farming with equipment made in the 40s and 50s.

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