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Improvements in ISOBUS Compatibility

When Tom Baughman and his son-in-law, Kyle Shepard, purchased a new Case IH 24-row planter a couple years ago, they wanted the machine to have all the latest technology, including variable-rate seeding, automatic row shutoff, and the ability to monitor virtual reality seed drop. 

On the other hand, they didn’t want to introduce yet another system into their precision farming program. The pair, who farm near Napoleon, Ohio, already had a terminal in the tractor for guidance and mapping that was quite capable of handling section control and seed monitoring. Fortunately, with a few modifications and wiring changes, their dealer was able to get the existing display to work with their planter.

industry slowly moves forward

The good news is, as more tractors and implements become ISOBUS-compatible, plug-and-play communication is slowly becoming a reality. Until recently, though, ISOBUS often meant different things to different companies, and there was no clear agreement on the standard.  

Officially introduced as ISO-11783 in the early 1990s by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), it focused on the communication between tractor and implement and the use of the Universal Terminal. The standard, however, is complex, with 14 different parts and over 1,000 pages of information, which leaves it open to interpretation. 

When some of the early applications were revealed, it quickly became apparent there was a problem. “From 2001 on, tens of thousands of ISOBUS implements, tractors, and components were sold worldwide,” says Peter van der Vlugt, chairman of the Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF). “Despite this high number, there were still incompatibility problems. Farmers who purchased equipment based on the existing standard were often promised the investment in ISOBUS was a secure investment and would give a plug-and-play solution for all their needs.”

After a few years, this promise appeared to be much different, he adds, noting that this was particularly evident between cross-branded equipment and when new features were added. “Before long, customers were losing confidence in the ISOBUS concept,” he says.

Dealers often sold solutions as ISOBUS-compatible without knowing what was behind the functionality of a certain product, notes van der Vlugt. “The industry also used different wording, such as ‘ISOBUS prepared’ or ‘ISOBUS light.’ All were misleading to the end customer.”

The industry began coming together in October 2008, when seven international ag equipment manufacturers and two trade organizations – the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and the Association of German Machinery and Plant – formed the AEF. 

The group recognized that the industry had to better explain the functionality of ISOBUS devices – and their limitations – to the end user. It also realized manufacturers had to provide better intra-company support for ISOBUS devices, and it needed to be more proactive in the development of ISOBUS certification testing.

AEF has 11 teams working on ISOBUS-related projects. They include development of conformance test procedures and equipment, functional safety, service and diagnostics, creation of an ISOBUS database, and more. 

The irony is that many European equipment manufacturers are ahead of those based in the U.S. Even Jason O’ Flanagan, former AGCO Advanced Technology Solutions field marketing and support manager, admits the company’s Fendt brand, which is built in Germany, is more advanced in ISOBUS functionality than its North American brands, such as Challenger and Massey Ferguson. 

“However, one of our goals is to have everything fully ISOBUS-compatible by the end of 2016,” he says.

O’Flanagan believes part of the reason ISOBUS was implemented so much quicker overseas is because, unlike North America, Europe is comprised of numerous countries and languages. People had to learn to work together. 

american farmers are brand loyal

Mark A. Benishek, technical director with AEM and AEF secretary, has another theory. “It seems that farmers in North America have a lot more brand loyalty than they do in Europe,” he offers. “We see more tractors and implements of the same brand being used together. In nearly all cases, equipment within a brand has always been compatible, so it hasn’t become an issue quite as early.” 

This theory might explain why Kinze offered ISOBUS compatibility as an option on its planters as early as 2012. As one of the nation’s largest planter and grain cart manufacturers, it was critical that its equipment play well with others or risk losing out on sales. 

Even ag tech companies like Ag Leader have joined the compatibility circle and also offer an avenue for updating an older tractor to today’s ISOBUS standards. 

“As an example, the InCommand display may act as the yield monitor in the combine,” says Jenna Royer, marketing manager for Ag Leader Technology. “The rest of the year, it can steer mixed tractor brands and control multiple ISOBUS implements via its Universal Terminal functionality.”

Similar upgrades are available from some tractor manufacturers. John Deere, for example, offers the same capabilities through its GreenStar 3 2630 display, which was one of the first displays to be ISO VT certified. It can also move from machine to machine.

Yet, there were still early incompatibility issues. It’s why John Deere, CNH, and AGCO were among the seven companies to establish the AEF. Today, Deere and others are working with Ag Gateway on an Ag Data Application Programming Toolkit program. Like the AEF, it seeks to eliminate the major pain points related to broad use of precision agriculture data by enabling interoperability between different software and hardware applications.

database need

Despite all the advancements, the AEF admits producers still have a lot of questions. To that end, it has been working to develop a database that producers can use to check the ISOBUS compatibility of hundreds of tractors, terminals, and implements. Registration (aef-isobus-database.org) is free and offers access to more information than can be found at any other source.

AEF also developed an AEF Certified Label that can be applied to ISOBUS-compatible equipment.

“Only ISOBUS products that have been certified by one of the AEF ISOBUS test labs will be allowed to bear this label,” says Benishek.

AEF also sponsors Plugfest twice a year. During the event, manufacturers take turns plugging their implement software into tractor networks, while tractor manufacturers test their compatibility with a host of implement software. 

“This past spring, 66 products were tested,” Benishek recalls. “Nowhere else do companies have such a unique opportunity to test compatibility with a wide range of products.”

That’s good news for producers who have been confused about ISOBUS, had to modify a system to make it work, changed their minds on a purchase due to incompatibility, or all of the above. With any luck, everyone can soon play nice. 

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