Ag Technologies Offers IoT-BLE Solution for Agriculture Companies

By Rich Handley

The system, utilizing technology from Trimble and Confidex, is intended to help businesses boost efficiency and productivity, increase asset visibility and automate farm operations.

Ag Technologies has released a solution leveraging  Trimble Agriculture's Precision Ag IoT system, intended to provide location awareness for equipment and individuals, as well as wireless intelligence to solve complex problems in the field or at an office. The platform features  Confidex's Viking Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) ruggedized beacons for tracking farm implements.

Trimble's IoT Intelligence software can locate and identify equipment, as well as automatically update vehicle configurations, without the need for wired sensors, which are prone to failure and require regular replacement, the companies explain. With BLE-based awareness of assets like farm implements, operators can automate their information-collection and data-management processes. Transmissions from the Bluetooth beacons automate functions on an operator's equipment display, running the Precision Ag solution, so they can go work without having to manually input data regarding their tools, their locations and the tasks they undertake.

For farmers, the companies report, the challenge is to allocate scarce resources to produce a safe, reliable food supply in a profitable and environmentally sustainable manner. To that end, the Precision Ag solution provides location, contextual and situational awareness to trigger events. Covering all seasons, crops, terrains and farm sizes, Trimble's agriculture solutions can be used on and with most farm equipment, regardless of the manufacturer.

Farmers can use Trimble's GFX-350 or GFX-750 display, installed on a vehicle, to control most field operations with a few taps, the company reports. According to Wade Stewart, the market manager of Trimble's Agriculture Division, the display is compatible with the company's NAV-500 and the NAV-900 guidance controllers, making it suitable for different user-accuracy needs, while the Precision-IQ operating system is designed to speed up field work and make equipment configuration faster and more intuitive.

Confidex's Viking beacons bring further intelligence to the system wirelessly, the companies explain. The beacons can be securely attached to all-weather implements in order to provide unique identification, and this information is then transmitted to an operator's vehicle or equipment. Once vehicles, fields, implements and materials are set up during first use, they can be saved and reused with a couple of clicks. For operators, that wireless connectivity enables the auto-selection of farm equipment, with relevant data displayed on the GFX touchscreen.

When operators attach a farm implement to their vehicle, the system identifies the tool and its history, then feeds that data to Trimble's IoT software platform, after which the system automatically identifies where the item is located, who is using it and the task for which it is being utilized. The vehicle's automated system is then configured for that specific implement. This feature eliminates the need for operators to log into a display or select an implement, thereby reducing the risk of errors. Such automated data, the companies explain, reduces the number of steps operators must perform to make the technology perform its intended tasks.

The solution relies on the reliable transmission of data from wireless sensors designed to operate under any conditions. Sensor durability is critical, the partners note, since agriculture equipment, as well as the sensors connected to each implement, are exposed to harsh weather, impacts and vibrations on a daily basis. Farm equipment is often stored without shelter for long periods of time and is expected to work when needed, so the Viking beacons are designed to be sufficiently durable to remain with the equipment and continue to provide wireless awareness for each implement.

According to Confidex, the beacons offer a wireless alternative to the sensors commonly used at smart farms. Existing sensors designed for agricultural purposes are often wired, require frequent maintenance and are prone to environmental damage, the company indicates, and many were designed for indoor use but were repurposed for outdoors. These beacons can include mechanical switches, accessible battery compartments and other points of ingress failure which do not withstand long work cycles. Such beacons might perform well during initial tests or pilots, Confidex notes, but will fail after extended exposure to outdoor temperatures, vibration, impacts and moisture.

The parts and labor costs required to identify such failures and replace beacons in the field, along with the equipment downtime, can be costly to equipment operators. "Confidex Viking was purpose-built to withstand the rigor of industrial and agricultural environment," said Joe Hoerl, Confidex's executive VP, in a prepared statement. The Viking can be securely attached to an asset via bolt, screw, rivet, strap, zip tie, adhesive, epoxy or magnet. Once the tag is secured onto an asset, it can be activated using its Near Field Communication (NFC) interface to turn on its Bluetooth radio.

The IP68-rated beacon is sealed against solids, including dust, and can withstand long periods of submersion in water. The Precision Ag solution with BLE beacons enables agriculture companies to manage operations and track assets whether those items might be in fields or in storage. "The agriculture industry has changed," added Brian Kelley, Ag Technologies' president, in the prepared statement. Until recently, he explained, "Farmers haven't had the level of tools and technology at their fingertips that big companies have, and now they do."