With most tractors and many implements now supporting ISOBUS technology, the time is right for ISOBUS to continue to grow. However, the cost/technology benefits of tablets will always far exceed that of the traditional ISOBUS compatible terminals. So what is the right answer for farmers and OEMs who want to take advantage of the latest and greatest technology while maintaining compatibility to the ISOBUS standard?
This article provides an overview of the benefits and challenges of ISOBUS Virtual Terminals, an assessment of the impact of the tablet for implement control in the agricultural industry and how these technologies are coming together with products like the JCA Vireo, the tablet based Virtual Terminal.
ISOBUS Virtual Terminals – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
ISOBUS is a term that refers to the communication bus that follows the ISO 11783 specification for communication in agricultural applications. There are many aspects and complexities to ISOBUS, with major functions and components such as the Virtual Terminal, the Task Controller, the Implement ECU, and Tractor ECU that allow for many components from different manufacturers to work together to achieve complex operations.
The ISOBUS Virtual Terminal (VT), also known as the Universal Terminal, is the most commonly used portion of the ISOBUS specification. This article provides an overview of the ISOBUS Virtual Terminal, its current state and its future prospects.
The VT was the major impetus behind ISOBUS, aimed at reducing the number of monitors in the cab of a tractor. Ag machines have a unique challenge in the world of heavy equipment, using a single power unit (the tractor) to pull or push several different implements throughout the farming season.
As electronic controls began to increase in the 1990’s and 2000’s, tractors began to look like the cockpit of the space shuttle as a different monitor was needed for every implement that a tractor could pull. The ISOBUS specification aimed to solve this problem by defining a common language, allowing implements to control what was shown on the display and defining operator interaction with the display to control the implement.
Today, ISOBUS VTs have been successfully deployed as universal monitors for many different implements. In many cases, the VT provided a graphical user interface for control of implements that could not otherwise justify their own dedicated monitor.
While ISOBUS VTs are intended to be terminals that can work with any ISOBUS implement controller, the reality can often be different. There have been many compatibility issues with VTs from different suppliers, even though they each claim to meet the ISOBUS specification. The Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation (AEF) is the organization that manages and administers ISOBUS certification. It has done a lot of good work in providing testing and certification that manufacturers can apply to their product to show they meet the ISOBUS standards, and maintain a database showing component compliance. This is in an effort to minimize compatibility issues between different manufacturers. However, because of the complexity of the standard, incompatibilities continue to exist.
The objective of defining a universal terminal has forced the ISOBUS standard to define particular structures that can be used, which limit options for operator interaction and graphic capabilities. Since the standard also needs to maintain reasonable backwards compatibility, this further limits what can be done in an application with an ISOBUS Virtual terminal. These limitations have caused operator frustration with ISOBUS VTs.
A major limitation of ISOBUS are the graphics that can be stored on the screen. The most common resolution for an ISOBUS Virtual Terminal (VT) data mask area (which is the main application viewing area) is 480 x 480 pixels, which is quite low resolution compared to modern screens. Since implement applications need to work on a wide variety of terminals, often smaller screens need to be supported as well.
This forces the use of screens with low resolution that are perpetually stuck in the 1990’s era, as they need to work with the lowest common denominator for screen compatibility. The advantages of improved screen technology are not fully utilized as the ISOBUS applications remain on low resolution screens.
The Tablet – A Major Shift in the Display Market
In order for ISOBUS to be useful for implement control and for implement OEMs, ISOBUS compatible tractors (including VTs) are needed. Before VTs were commonplace in the tractor, there was no point for implement manufacturers to develop ISOBUS compatible implement controllers, as the tractors did not have the screens to display them.
Ironically, just as ISOBUS VTs in tractors became widespread enough to become useful for implement control, there has been a major disruption in the display market. In 2010, Apple released a product that would have a major impact on every industry that uses some sort of display for user interaction, the iPad.
It took several years before it became obvious, but tablets have now taken hold in the agricultural market. It turns out the tablet is very well-suited to solving the same problem that ISOBUS VTs tackled, as a single tablet could have apps from different manufacturers that communicate over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to an ISOBUS implement controller. The tablet allows for a single display to be used to control implements from many manufacturers, but because it is driven by high volume consumer technology, the price point is much lower, and the technology capability is much higher when compared to the typical ISOBUS VT.
Unlike ISOBUS VTs, tablets are not limited in the organization and structure of graphics on the screen, allowing apps to be implemented in a way that is well-suited to the application. Plus, as tablet hardware continues to evolve, apps can be easily loaded onto new devices allowing users to always make use of the most current technology. With built-in communication capabilities and untethered connection, tablets quickly offer benefits that will never be available in ISOBUS VTs.
Vireo – Two Worlds Colliding
With most tractors and many implements now supporting ISOBUS technology, the time is right for ISOBUS to continue to grow. However, the cost/technology benefits of tablets are insurmountable for traditional ISOBUS compatible terminals. So what is the right answer for farmers and OEMs who want to take advantage of the latest and greatest technology while maintaining compatibility to the ISOBUS standard?
This is where the JCA Vireo system offers a solution. The JCA Vireo is a tablet-based ISOBUS VT. It uses a JCA Thrasher module to connect into the ISOBUS network, communicating like a typical ISOBUS Virtual Terminal, and connecting over a Wi-Fi interface to a tablet running the JCA Vireo app. The Vireo app runs on any off-the-shelf iOS, Android, or Windows based tablet and functions as the ISOBUS VT. Operators can control ISOBUS compatible implements through the app, just as they would through a traditional ISOBUS VT. This solution is compatible with ISOBUS implements, uses an un-tethered wireless connection to the vehicle, makes use of the technology advantages of the tablets, and sells for a much lower price than a traditional VT.
In addition to the out-of-box Vireo system, JCA offers the integration of the Vireo software with custom OEM applications. In this type of system, JCA can integrate the ISOBUS functionality as part of larger applications that may have functions beyond ISOBUS systems.
A tablet based VT offers more than just the lower cost of a high-end graphic display for ISOBUS functions, it also offers new capabilities that are not available in existing ISOBUS displays, such as wireless capability and remote diagnostics. By virtue of having the display connected over Wi-Fi to a tablet, the VT can now be unshackled from the cab of the tractor, and can be used around the machine which can be beneficial for diagnostic and calibration purposes.
With the benefit of tablet technology that facilitates connection to the Internet (through a GSM connection), the VT screen has the possibility of being viewed remotely from any location in the world. This can aid OEM support staff in troubleshooting problems remotely with the advantage of viewing the operator screen. This can be done with OEM version of the Vireo system using remote desktop functionality facilitated by the JCA cloud-based backbone, Cumulus. The ability to view a screen remotely can save thousands of dollars in support costs as problems can be identified immediately by expert staff, that otherwise may have taken more time to diagnose over the phone.
The JCA Vireo system integrates the ISOBUS VT with the tablet to take full advantage of the best that both technologies offer. Tablet technology will continue to grow exponentially offering increasing capability per dollar spent and setting the in-cab display on the road to extinction. This leaves the ISOBUS VT in a difficult situation – just as it is becoming an essential part of every farm. The JCA Vireo provides a path for ISOBUS VTs to remain relevant without having to sacrifice the technology offered by tablets, all for a significantly reduced cost to the end user.