Diagnostics and Configuration of Mobile Machines in the Field

Software systems in precision agriculture equipment continue to evolve quickly as new value can be realized through increased automation and connectivity that allows for improved yields and operational efficiency. While these systems bring significant value to farming operations, they also require increasing levels of technical support and infrastructure. Technologies that consider not only the core features, but also build in consideration of technical support and deployment of software updates become critical in the successful deployment and sustainability of these systems.

Highly skilled and specialized workers are often required to support configuration and troubleshooting of complex software systems, as it is unreasonable to expect farm managers to be an expert with all the equipment and software required to run today’s modern farm. These skilled workers can be costly and in short supply, so successfully deployed software systems need to build in intuitive configuration and diagnostic tools that minimize the need for specially trained workers for common support functions, and also build in advanced diagnostic tools that can remotely access equipment from anywhere in the world, to be able to connect the system experts with the machine at the right times to minimize machine downtime and maximize production.

What began as our own need to configure systems and diagnose issues during the development of agricultural mobile machines, JCA created a range of tools and technologies to use and integrate with systems we work on. These tools and technologies with examples are described below.

Wind Tools

Wind Tools is PC/Laptop software that JCA developed as an internal diagnostic and configuration tool, and we quickly got OEMs and farmers/operators to use it because it added so much value. All our embedded controllers are compatible with Wind Tools. Over a wireless (Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) connection, Wind Tools provides several different features including:

  • Branding – Customized style that matches OEM branding
  • Device and System Management – View connected controllers, firmware versions and reprogram with firmware updates.
  • File Management – Access log files, manage configuration files.
  • Parameters – Get and set configuration parameters used to control the state of the application, as thresholds, and to enable various features.
  • Live Data – Graphically view application specific values in real-time including raw sensor values, intermediate calculations, system state and statuses.

Typically Wind Tools is used during development to save time. During verification and validation, parameters are used to adjust thresholds when analyzing sensor data and controlling hydraulics, pneumatics, and actuators. It allows JCA to develop firmware and then quickly adjust values such as PID coefficients and hysteresis thresholds in the field during testing without having to modify source code, rebuild and update controllers which can take a lot of time and is only done by developers. After parameters have been finalized during field testing default values can be set in the source code. Sometimes the parameters are entirely removed, eliminating flexibility in the firmware, when we are confident they won’t require adjustments or we don’t want them to be adjustable for safety reasons.

As shown below, live data is used to monitor sensors and states in real-time to ensure the application is operating as expected. Log files are quickly downloaded and analyzed, and application adjustments are easily applied in the field via device and system management.

OEMs commonly use Wind Tools in their production lines to configure machines and verify functionality. Wind Tools supports multiple configuration files that limit access to functionality and parameters. OEMs usually have different configurations for manufacturing, technicians, and farmers/operators so that only specific functionality and parameters are accessible.

Mobile Apps

JCA has years of experience developing Android and iOS mobile apps for phones and tablets, being one of the first companies to recognize their value and integrate them with mobile machine control. Mobile apps provide a visual interface for farmers and operators using a convenient and familiar modern device. JCA encourages customers to use mobile standard design patterns that are consistent with apps from other industries that people use every day resulting in intuitive apps for their equipment.

All the same features in Wind Tools can also be present in mobile app, however they are presented in an entirely different manner to the user resulting in improved user experience. Efficient accessibility of features, intuitive layouts and appropriate messaging are fundamental. For example, warning messages are commonly used at the start of operation and when changing specific settings. Wizards with pictures and detailed descriptions are used to help guide farmers and operators through a sequence of configuration steps. Preferences can be customized, and warning messages and alarms can be used to notify the operator when appropriate.

Mobile apps typically have a configuration and diagnostics screen. Configuration screens allow operators to adjust specific settings or thresholds that may require adjusting based on field conditions or the job at hand. Only select settings are included so that the operator does not have excessive control, possibly overwhelming them. This limits their ability to misconfigure the system. Adding reasonable limits for these settings in the app also reduces chances of misconfigured systems. Diagnostic screens provides a quick and generally quite technical view of the machine by listing the real-time status of inputs, outputs, and application states. They are a great place to start when troubleshooting because the basics can be quickly verified.

Mobile apps developed by JCA can usually upgrade controller firmware. The controller firmware is either embedded directly in the app or it is hosted by a cloud service and cached by the mobile app. When connected, the mobile app can automatically check the controller firmware version and notify the user if it is out of date. Depending on the significance of the update, the operator can be forced to perform the update or given the choice to postpone. The significance is specific to the update and the current firmware version on the controller.

Distributing controller firmware via a mobile app provides access to all users almost instantaneously. Updates are seamlessly distributed to all customers with minimal effort. Either an updated mobile app containing the new controller firmware is put in the iOS App and Google Play Stores which operators update to and then use in the field, or the new controller firmware is added to a cloud service which is polled and cached by operator mobile apps. These distribution techniques eliminate firmware update related field visits by technicians, which allows OEMs to use technicians for other tasks and increase efficiency.

Cellular Connectivity

JCA’s agricultural implement controls platform offers connectivity capability that can extend implement machine controls to multiple machines, providing an integrated user experience across a broader workflow. In most cases the cloud system developed is unique to the characteristics of the application, so a custom cloud solution is developed for the OEM application. Within this custom solution, several technology components from JCA’s Cumulus platform can be integrated to provide common features that bring value to the application. These features include machine location and status monitoring, remote software deployment and management, user secure role-based access, and management of task data.

Periodic synchronization can be adequate for some applications and is less costly than having the machine always connected and streaming status in real-time as it will use less bandwidth. In this case, the machine is programmed to connect to a cloud service and check for firmware updates at a regular interval or on a certain event such as startup. When a firmware update is found, it notifies the operator that there is an update and like the mobile app scenario previously explained, based on the significance of the update either forces the operator to perform the update or it can be optional.

Status and job results can also be synchronized with cloud services periodically. This allows supervisors to generally know the status of their machines and may be more appropriate if the real-time status is not important or if cellular coverage is limited. The timeliness of status and job results is less important for some applications, making periodic updates appropriate.

Although machines that are always connected have their advantages. These machines can stream their data to cloud services allowing farmers to remotely monitor job progress in real-time as shown below. With multiple machines working, located on the same field or different fields, supervisors can efficiently monitor their entire fleet. While jobs are being completed, supervisors can be planning the next job, and they can adapt plans based on machine availability because they are immediately notified about required machine maintenance and breakdowns.

By storing this data in the cloud so that it is remotely accessible by farm managers, it opens the door to other possibilities such as analysis using machine learning algorithms. Machine learning algorithms could highlight improvement opportunities during the development of the machine and operation, including predictive maintenance reducing downtime and increased operation efficiencies.

Secure Remote Access

With cellular connectivity or some other data connection to the field, secure remote access enables direct access to farm equipment in the field without the time-consuming travel costs. Although seemingly costly, remote access quickly becomes cost effective after a single use because it can greatly reduce machine downtime and eliminate the cost of organizing and having a technician perform a site visit.

For security reasons, JCA recommends requiring local operators enable and disable secure remote access to machines. This limits the chance of unwanted third parties gaining access. To remotely access a machine, a local operator enables remote access from their HMI, commonly a mobile app or ISOBUS screen. The machine connects to a cloud service and is listed as accessible to anyone who has the proper access permissions. A supervisor or technician can then connect to the cloud service and assuming they have the proper access permissions, they can securely access the machine as if they are in the field.

Secure remote access allows supervisors and technicians to access log files, view diagnostics, change configuration settings, and perform upgrades. They can see exactly what the operator sees in the cab. They could be remotely accessing multiple machines simultaneously from their office, quickly and efficiently diagnosing multiple problems in the field.

Summary

Most mobile machines can benefit from additional diagnostics and configuration, which can reduce the time and cost of support. Determining what is appropriate for each machine is a bit of an art and is usually influenced by experience with similar machines and its complexity. If your system could benefit from any of the diagnostics and configuration features described, please contact us at info@jcatechnologies.com. We are excited to discuss all opportunities.

Contact Us

Have a vision for making agricultural machinery work smarter? An idea that you've wanted to build but haven't known how to begin?

There's never been a better time to take that first step. Let JCA Technologies outline a solution for you.