Seed drills sensor: the importance of installing sensors on seed drills – part 1
10 March 2023
Sensors on agricultural machinery: the needs of the development of this technology
An important aspect is how the quality of the information we have determines the accuracy of our choices: using an effective sensor technology in a seeder gives the possibility of continuous monitoring of the entire sowing, and not only with single samples of the plot during the sowing, but with constant monitoring of the entire activity that we are going to carry out, multiplying the samples in our possession and also providing us more data to examine, this turns into more information for the future choices that we will take.
Furthermore, an aspect that requires more and more attention in a modern farm It’s the possibility of making two aspects that have always been linked independent, the quality of the work produced and the experience of the producer: the knowledge of the variables that come into play during sowing as the knowledge of the lands on which we are going to invest, of the seeder with which we are going to operate, of the techniques to obtain the maximum result and many others, have determined in the past a univocal link between the final result and the farmer who has performed.
In a modern conception of business management, and therefore of interchangeable human figures who can carry out the same operations, but at the same time with different knowledge and backgrounds, technology comes in handy: supporting those who interface with the machine with objective and clear information, we reduce the possibility of making wrong choices, and increase the production capacity of the machines and finally to reduce the cost of training.
Taking a short step back and looking for the reasons why today the choice to invest in technology on a modern seeder such as the Blockage sensors produced by MC Elettronica, composed of an infrared optical photocell coupled to a microprocessor, it is necessary to understand how the figure of the farmer is profoundly transformed, evolved and increasingly comparable to the figure of a business manager aiming for success, introducing the concept of agricultural entrepreneur. From this point of view, it is clear that the common goal is to do more and better with fewer resources, considering each variable so far evaluated as negligible.
Picture 1 – Application of Blockage Sensor infrared photocells for flow monitoring in a pneumatic seed drill.
The seed and its needs
However, before dealing in more detail with the technology, it’s better to have a deep knowledge of the material we are managing in the field which in this case is the seed. Planting in the ground is one of the most technological agronomic operations that has the purpose of guaranteeing agricultural production. The seed is a biological unit equipped with everything needed to be able to germinate, but in order to do so it must be placed in the right conditions. In fact, an interesting characteristic that is still partly not fully clarified is the ability of the seed to remain alive and to germinate despite the very low humidity content, together with the partial cellular disorganization. However, in the presence of soil moisture it absorbs the necessary water and except in particular conditions, the metabolic processes are triggered which lead to germination supported by the reserve substances present. This very delicate field phase requires the best agronomic technique. Indeed the water and its movement towards the seed are the key factor here: the volume of soil from which the seed absorbs water does not exceed a sphere of about 1 cm in diameter representing the microenvironment which directly influences germination but with variable effects according to the cultivated species.
Obviously the flow of water from the soil to the seed is within a balance of factors including:
contact between seed and moist soil;
factors that modify the amount of soil moisture (climate, soil type, agronomic technique, organic substance present).
Figure 2 – A) elements coming from above ground; B) layer of soil covering the seed; C) seed deposited in soft soil and in purple seeding depth; D) soil underlying the seed (worked or hard).
Agrotechnics and sowing
As is well known, agrotechnics is the set of choices that the farm must define so that it is possible to guarantee agricultural production and the company budget in the management of the soil and crops. Among the many factors that must be known in order to be successful in sowing management, we can indicate for example: choice of seed, sowing period, type of soil management and tillage. In this context, however, we want to focus on the sowing rates, a particularly important aspect to manage in the field of agronomic technique which directly influences the management of the sowing site, the cost and the final production. Taking wheat as a reference, for example, in the literature it is defined as the quantity of seed to be used per square meter depends on the density of plants to be obtained, on the average weight of the kernels, on the factors on which germinability in the field depends. The latter is then influenced by other factors such as soil preparation, low temperature in late sowing, low humidity, seed or seedling predators. Therefore, as every farmer knows, it is good to raise the dosages of seed compared to those actually necessary in optimal conditions. However, there must be a balance between the availability of production factors (water, nutrients) and the sowing rate. In fact, it is not obvious that high plant densities guarantee high productions especially if the factors are severely limiting, first of all water shortages, just as excessive plant density determines a lower resistance of the culms to lodging. It is clear that the dose must therefore be commensurate with the agronomic context, the fertility of the soil and the availability of production factors so that in fact it is the balance between all the limits present in relation to the obtainable production that must be optimized.
Picture 3 - An agronomic technique consistent with the agronomic context and the defined objectives are a solid bridge that leads from the seed to agricultural production. In this context, the seeder is strategic in contributing to the agronomic result.
Seed drills mechanics
Seed drills, compared to planters, allow to sow crops (wheat, legumes, etc) with very reduced spacing between crop rows. In this regard, seed drills have a mechanical distributor with seed falling by gravity or in a pneumatic version which exploit an air stream to transport the seed to the ground. In both cases, the semen dosage is traditionally of volumetric type. In this context the dosers and distributors, positioned at the base of the hopper in a special housing, receive the seed and transfer it to the ground dosing the product, they are available in various designs to adapt them to the type of seed to be sown including universal grooved cylinders, with toothed rollers.
Picture 4 – an example of the seed transport and dosing system with seed sensor in a pneumatic seed drill.
To define the seeding dose it is possible to act both in the choice of the size of the distribution reels and in the rotation speed of the distributor regulated by mechanical transmissions or with electric or hydraulic motors. In these systems, the choice of materials, geometries and systems that minimize damage and breakage of the seeds and therefore leave the germinative strength of the seed unchanged, already subject to natural factors as indicated above, must also be considered. In any case, the seed, once released from the distributors, enters in pipes which, either by gravity on the mechanical machines, or with a high-speed stream of air, guide it towards the seed rows on the ground by the openers (of various types).
Picture 5 – an example of high performances pneumatic seed drill.
Picture 6 – some examples of distributor reels of various profiles for pneumatic seeders moved by precision digitally controlled electric motors. One revolution in the distributor corresponds to a certain dose according to the volumes defined by the grooves. The geometry of the surface is designed to adapt to different seeds.
Agriculture 4.0 – The 5+2 factors that identify the agriculture 4.0 machines
19 January 2021
The fourth industrial revolution is in full swing and the concepts on which it is based are data connection, exchange and management, and remote control. Taking reference from the requirements defined in attachments A and B, annexed to the law dated 11 December 2016, n. 232 related to tax credit and applied to “Agriculture 4.0”, a declination of Industry 4.0 for agriculture, we can see the type of features an agricultural machine must have in order to be recognised as such.
What does attachment A have to say regarding Agriculture 4.0The main point of attachment A regarding Agriculture 4.0 machines (it is not the only one) states “Capital goods whose operation is controlled by computerised systems or via suitable sensors and drives” with reference to the sub-group “machines, including driving and operating machines, tools and devices for loading and unloading, handling, weighing and automatic piece sorting, lifting devices and automated handling, AGV and flexible conveying and handling systems and/or equipped with piece recognition (for example RFID, visors and vision and mechatronic systems)”.
For the agricultural machine to meet the requirements set forth for Agriculture 4.0, the following requirements must therefore be fulfilled:
R1. Control via CNC (Computer Numerical Control) and/or PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) or equivalent solutions (e.g. micro controllers): reference is made to the fact that, in Agriculture 4.0 machines, control hardware of the system is implemented and supervised with drives having digital functions;R2. Interconnection with the factory’s IT systems with remote loading of instructions and/or part program, which means the interconnection system that enables communication of the control system of point R1 with the remote system via appropriate protocols;R3. Automated integration with the logistics system of the factory or with the supply network and/or other machines since the control and automated systems exchange data with a monitoring system (e.g. a PC with a data transmission and recording software) or with other machines involved. In order to comply with the definition of Agriculture 4.0, this process must be able to be managed via a remote interface (image A)
R4. Simple and intuitive man-machine interface that operators can access and interact with safely;
R5. Meeting the most recent standards with regard to safety, health and hygiene, which is related to the above point and refers to, for example, the construction standards provided for by the Machinery Directive and other relevant standards.
To which these two additional characteristics (there are five in all) are usually added:
RA. Remote maintenance and/or remote diagnosis and/or remote control systems for which there is a remote monitoring system both for functional checks but also to repair compromised machine functions;
RB. Continuous monitoring of the work conditions and process parameters via appropriate sets of sensors and process deviation activities, which is of fundamental importance since it is precisely the presence of the sensors that enables you to monitor the performance, presence of functional errors and malfunctions;
Image B: PRO-SEEDER - Counter and seed passage check sensors by MC elettronica
In actual fact, attachment A and B annexed to the law dated 11 December 2016, n. 232 contain additional options, which we can possibly discuss in a future article, but which we invite you to consult by finding it easily with a Google search.
Written by Dr. Agr. Mattia Trevini PhD - Agroingegno
What about remote management of agricultural machines? With agriculture 4.0 it is possible!
19 January 2021
Using Wikipedia as reference, the main principles of Industry 4.0 are represented by the logics of automation to improve the work conditions, generate new business models, increase the yield and production quality of the machines and systems. Logic 4.0 is strictly linked to the concept of smart factory.
Three elements are linked to this approach, which are: collaboration between the production players (man, machines and tools), integration of IT infrastructures to integrate systems and companies together, optimization of energy consumption by reducing waste. This entire logical system is based on the concept of a cyber-physical system, meaning the integration and connection of physical systems with IT systems that are in turn inserted into a larger integration and network.
The cyber-physical system for application of Agriculture 4.0 systemsIn this regard, the technologies involved in this new world are advanced production systems (e.g. robot, cobot), Additive Manufacturing (3D printing), augmented reality, virtual computer simulations, integration and exchange of information, industrial internet, cloud platforms (cloud computing), IT protection and security, data analyses (big data concept). All concepts related to Industry 4.0 can be perfectly implemented in the agricultural sector, thereby improving the performance and operating quality of the farming machines with a strong impact on an agronomical level for agricultural crops and on a zootechnical level regarding animal production in a precision and more efficient business management. In this context, Agriculture 4.0 is the last piece of the puzzle that raises the technical level in business management.
Agriculture 4.0, a site exampleAmong the many things that can be done is sowing with machines connected remotely via the web to a cloud platform, equipped with sensors and data acquisition systems with mapping of the area worked and georeferencing of the operating data (agronomic and machine operation), which are sent, stored and made available to the business management logistic system, but also with the option to integrate with on-board systems remotely (Image A). In this example, there are at least four players involved and the data exchanged with administration and related services can have multiple purposes:
The operator that manages the functions on the machine is no longer the driver but is extremely facilitated in running the area and in guaranteeing its regular operation, in particular with regard to the supply of seeds, any faults signalled in time to service already notified by an alarm, the feed-rate and status of the work, etc…;
USC-PRO sowing control system by MC elettronica
The entrepreneur or administration department that knows what the machine is doing in real time in order to manage all services related to sowing, meaning the work of employees, the relationship with suppliers, store management, sowing quality, etc;The manufacturer, since familiarity with the malfunctions and performance parameters make it possible to have precise and detailed information at hand to improve the design of its machines;The service department or whoever deals with the commercial and assistance part, entering a preventive or predictive maintenance logic, managing its customers more precisely and guaranteeing a faster service in providing spare parts or in guaranteeing interventions directly on site.
Agriculture 4.0 in the near futureWe are clearly generalising and the logic of Agriculture 4.0 must be duly adapted to the different farming conditions and business systems, especially since agriculture is not a precise science and is subject to many variables to be managed as opposed to an industrial production system, but this does not exclude the adoption in a sector where tradition, experience and technology have always found strong interaction. The problem is likely to be in the technical skills that require new professional people or updating those already present.
Written by DR Agr. Mattia Trevini PhD - Agroingegno
Precision farming – 5 considerations with regard to implementing variablerate machines
19 January 2021
Let’s start by asking a simple question. What are variable rate agricultural machines? When referring to agricultural equipment, the variable rate is a production factor supply method based on prescription maps reading. Once the maps are set and loaded onto the control system’s memory of the equipment, which is often transmitted by ISObus systems on the tractor via USB pen drive or remote wireless connection, they simply make georeferenced information available to the control software. The software running on the machine basically compares the GPS coordinates where the equipment is located, thanks to the GPS antenna, with the coordinates uploaded via the prescription maps that associate information regarding the specific application.
Variable rate agricultural operationsThis approach can be used, for example, for variable dose distribution of a determined factor to be distributed such as seeds fertiliser, and water, but it can also be used for different work on the field, to implement the herbicide and plant protection control. Generally speaking, it is precisely the use of sensors that makes it possible to perform the operations on the field since being familiar with the operating parameters is what makes it possible to control the actuators.
ESD system by MC Elettronica
Hydra system by MC Elettronica
These systems, if also applied in managing farming wastewater, can, for example, mitigate their impact on the environment as in the distribution of wastewater with direct injection systems. In this regard,cross checking the position data detected in real time with the data uploaded by the prescription map based on the nitrogen to be distributed and the data of the NIR sensor on board the machine that measures the nitrogen content in the wastewater enable you to control the rotation speed of the pump and, with the help of the automatic guide, to implement site-specific distribution.
Variable rate agricultural equipment: Five valid considerationsBased on what has just been said and the agricultural needs to be fulfilled with the equipment, five considerations are being proposed from among the many that can be made in using machines for variable rate precision farming:
Technical skills: implementing variable rate machines undoubtedly requires new skills in which operators are no longer simple machine drivers but must also be able to know how to manage the control systems on board the machine;Variable rate to manage and maps: the most important properties with regard to agricultural technique and yield are mapped, classifying them in adjoining homogeneous areas from which the prescription maps are obtained and which guide operation of the operating machines. However, the areas must be of a sufficient size but with a limited number of classes since considering the speed with which the machines modulate the rate of application in relation to the feed-rate speed, a high efficiency and work precision must still be maintained;
Calibration: the machines that distribute the products, whether they are seeds, fertiliser, water, etc., must guarantee precision. It seems obvious, but it is not because if an operating machine is not fitted with adequately calibrated sensors and drives, the purpose of managing the site with precision is useless. This is why is it important to pay due attention to the operation of the sensors;The size of the company is definitely a parameter to keep in mind for the financial sustainability in the introduction of equipment and technologies for precision farming, but it also depends on the type of crops and organisation. In this context, if the cropping farm cannot sustain the investment of a tool, it doesn’t mean that it cannot enjoy the benefits of precision farming but, rather, in this sense, resorting to subcontracting can fulfil the purpose very well, leaving the cropping farm to only deal with data management with, all things considered, a minimal investment;Machines and industry 4.0: variable rate machines become part of the IoT (Internet of Things) logic in which remote data reception and transmission, with the possibility of also having remote control, are the basis. In this sense, the logic of automated management of information forms part of the fourth industrial revolution, significantly raising the technological content of the machines and ultimately of the way of implementing agriculture;
Although agriculture is not like the industry, fast, efficient and precise systems are increasingly sought after, innovating while respecting tradition. What do you think?
Written by Dr. Agr. Mattia Trevini PhD - Agroingegno
Precision Farming – The concept, processing and use of data
19 January 2021
The idea of precision farming and the basic concepts related to the spatial variability of the soil’s characteristics and the resulting need to compensate for the differences, especially with regard to the impact on production, was already applied in the first experiences back in the 1920s in the field of agricultural experimentation. It is clear that electronic tools did not exist in that period, and everything was carried out manually, for example, when measuring the pH, samples were taken from points in the soil while counting steps in the field on a previously set regular grid. The said map was then used to apply the addition of a soil improver and corrective. It was definitely an arduous and difficult task but one that was spurred by skill and a golden rule, typical of precision farming, which you can only improve what you can measure!
Precision Farming: All part of Measurements and mappingTaking a leap in time and returning to the present day, the introduction of electronics and IT applied to these operating principles in agriculture have also made it possible to implement the method outside the experimental field by automating it. In this sense, applying precision farming today means fulfilling a series of structured steps, which in a nutshell are:
Using special instruments and sensors to measure the chemical/physical parameters on the soil and cultivated plants, associating geographic information or, rather, georeferencing the data measured with spatial coordinates, usually latitude and longitude;Creating the map of variability defined through geostatistical approaches of the data detected in which we will represent how this parameter changes in space (the cultivated field);Defining the variability in the map where the variability is represented by analysing the data of the homogenous areas for characteristics defined with measurements, which are normally between 3 to 5 areas or classes;By using the variability maps and applying specific algorithms, obtaining prescription maps that are used to provide the production factors based on the variability found, and implementing appropriate agronomic strategies (e.g. seed, fertiliser or water doses).
A few examples of the technologies used to apply Precision FarmingToday, all this work is carried out with the data acquisition and georeferencing technologies. It is possible to map the variability ranging from the measurement of the soil’s texture via electrical conductivity sensors, to the use of multispectral sensors to detect the vigour of the crops by calculating the NDVI (Image A) with sensors airborne by drones (Image B) or using weighing and humidity sensors on combine harvesters to define production maps (Image C).
The data collected are then subjected to processing through special software available in the management and interpretation of field data to create prescription maps and use electronic control variable rate equipment (Image D).
In this context, integration with the control technologies on machines is a strategic and essential element, with many application examples now available, from the adoption of the variable rate fertilizer spreader managed with sensors on board the machine capable of calculating the NDVI index and adjusting in real time the dose of nitrogen to be supplied (A) or the adoption of electronic systems with control of the distributor units in seed drills electrically driven and managed through a sowing map loaded on the control terminal of the operating machine (for example in image E – USC Pro control system by MC Elettronica).
The farmer’s roleIn this regard, we can consider precision farming as a team effort where technologies and farming expertise come together in a multidisciplinary approach. It is obvious that precision farming is not about having a GPS and driving straight ahead the tractor, as is often heard. On the contrary, the GPS is only a small part of a much larger and more important puzzle to make the use of the machines, the farming technique and ultimately the efficiency of the company’s operation more efficient. In all of this, the farmer has an important role since the precision farming technologies condensed in his hands enhance his decision-making and entrepreneurial abilities... don’t you agree?
Written by Dr. Agr. Mattia Trevini PhD - Agroingegno