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Automation technology for mobile equipment is currently in a state of transition. Faced with unrelenting demands for higher productivity, the agricultural and construction industries are turning to increasingly automated and networked machinery. We sat down with Stefan Taxer, B&R's product manager for mobile automation, to find out what makes modern concepts such as smart farming so difficult to implement using conventional automation technology.

Stefan, you've said that conventional approaches to mobile automation are outdated. Why is that?

Over the past few years, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of automation components found in mobile machinery. Nearly every vehicle now features multiple ECUs, displays, sensors and other electronics – all of which need to be coordinated. Maintaining such a complex system is costly and time-consuming, and it's getting harder and harder to implement new developments.

Why is there such a variety of different systems?

The requirements for functionality and performance have risen sharply over the past two decades. Manufacturers began with very basic automation systems, and then gradually added new hardware and software. When these systems ran up against the limitations of the CAN networks on which they were built, manufacturers simply added parallel networks to implement the desired functions.

What disadvantages can that have?

Inevitably, you end up using hardware and software from different vendors. To work with and troubleshoot these components, you need multiple engineering tools. You need a specialist for each system, and when it comes time for support, you first have to figure out who the right contact is. And certainly not the least of your problems is that these systems need to exchange data, so you need to program and maintain all the interfaces. On top of all that, the application software is most often tied to your hardware, which hinders your ability to make hardware changes down the road.

So how do you recommend dealing with the increasing complexity?

You need to be able to develop and maintain an entire mobile automation solution – from the controller down to the sensors – using a single engineering tool. This approach hinges on the use of a consistent, real-time capable backbone bus network with sufficient bandwidth.

Making a switch like this is surely no small undertaking.

If you had to develop such a unified system from the ground up, you would indeed have your work cut out for you. But, you have to remember that these requirements have already been solved for other industries, such machinery and equipment manufacturing. If you can take concepts that have proven themselves in those arenas and apply them to mobile equipment, you're already looking at a whole new generation of mobile automation.

Isn't comparing mobile and industrial automation a bit like apples and oranges?

Yes and no. When it comes to the basic functions, there are virtually no differences. A controller is a controller, regardless of whether it controls a painting robot or an excavator shovel with millimeter precision. The software used for engineering, control, maintenance and diagnostics also needs to meet the same criteria. What's different are the environmental conditions under which the products need to operate. A printing press controller, for example, isn't cleaned with a pressure washer like the controller on an agricultural or construction vehicle is. Mobile automation needs products that can easily withstand a host of harsh conditions, including ultraviolet light, extreme temperatures, vibrations, shock, saltwater, oil and condensation.

Mobile equipment frequently exchanges data over the Internet. How can this data be secured?

The cloud presents a different set of requirements for data transfer than an industrial environment does. Here, the focus is not on high bandwidth and real-time capability, but rather on security against theft and tampering. With its integrated security features, the vendor-independent OPC UA standard is a perfect match for this challenge. It can also communicate easily over WLAN, mobile networks, the Internet or industrial Ethernet. The OPC UA protocol has rapidly gained significance in the field of industrial automation over the past few years.

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