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Smart Agriculture - Connectors go to the Farm

Connector Geek
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With all the talk of the Industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and the Smart Factory, it is easy to forget that the world of agriculture has always been at the forefront of new technology. Just as the steam engine made a huge impact on farming two centuries ago, the latest innovations have a role to play on the farm of tomorrow.

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The Smart Farm

The rise of the smart factory, sometimes known as Industry 4.0, has been one of the key trends within manufacturing. This new industrial revolution is enabled by the increasing connectivity between computers and machinery, allowing operators to respond rapidly to changes in the marketplace. The same connected technology has enabled the development of smart farming.

The smart farm employs a network of sensors, computing, and connectivity technologies to enable farmers to maximise their yield. Data is collected from a wide range of sources and is used to help make decisions on a daily or even hourly basis. The farmer can monitor data as diverse as the condition of the soil or the health of livestock, allowing the correct use of resources to maximise productivity.

The low cost, small size and reduced power consumption of modern electronics has enabled a whole new generation of equipment to be designed that can be deployed around the farm to provide feedback to the farmer. Whether deployed at a static location in a field, fixed to a piece of farm machinery or even worn by livestock, these devices create a data network that provides a complete picture of the health of the farm.

Alternative Farms

There are farming environments that can be controlled. The search for increased yield and improved efficiency has led to developments that challenge our view of the traditional farm. The use of advanced technology has allowed farmers to use spaces that might never see a ray of natural sunlight or feel a drop of rain. This is the underground farm.

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Growing crops in spaces as varied as disused subways or abandoned mines present a whole new range of challenges. The environment needs to be carefully monitored and managed, from temperature and humidity to the use of artificial light. Despite the technological challenges, there are many advantages to growing crops in these unusual places.

In these high-tech farms, plants can be grown using hydroponic techniques, which involve the use of enriched liquids rather than soil. By using space efficiently and selecting fast-growing species, these underground farms can produce food regardless of the weather or time of year. Not only do these techniques use fewer natural resources, but these farms can also be created in the heart of the city, allowing rapid distribution to consumers without the need for additional infrastructure.

Tough Environment

In contrast to the conditions found inside the urban farm, the above-ground environment presents a different range of challenges. While the factory or the urban farm can be a challenging home for electronic equipment, the managed environment can minimise the impact on sensitive devices.

This is a luxury not available to the traditional farmer. Equipment used in agriculture must function while being subjected to severe weather. Prolonged exposed to wind and rain, extreme temperatures, and direct sunlight means that farming equipment needs to be designed with protection in mind.

Creating an enclosure for outdoor use requires more than just a sealed box. The use of IP ratings provides a convenient shorthand for understanding protection against water and contaminants. IP ratings use a 2-digit code to describe the level of protection against ingress. Devices intended for installation in sheltered locations might need a rating of IP65, while equipment that will be immersed in water for long periods would need a rating of IP68.

However, an IP rating only provides part of the picture. The extremes of temperature can have an adverse effect on some of the materials traditionally used to seal enclosures. Rubber can become brittle at low temperatures, reducing its elastic qualities and its effectiveness as a seal. At higher temperatures, plastic and rubber can become soft, which can also compromise waterproof joints. These effects can be magnified by weeks or months of temperature cycling.

To add further complication to the designer’s workload, prolonged exposure to sunlight can damage many kinds of polymer materials. Under this combination of conditions, selection of the correct material becomes critical to the useful lifespan of any equipment deployed in the open air.

Connecting It All Together

Connectors play a crucial role in the smart farm, but the applications for which they are used are as varied as the environments in which they operate. Some connectors are left permanently attached, providing power and data links for equipment in the field. Other connectors are left unused for months at a time, to be plugged in occasionally to download data or update software. For such an application, connectors need to be sealed whilst unmated. This required the use of waterproof seals and caps, an option not available to all connectors.

Fortunately for the designer, there is a wide range of products that provide a combination of environmental protection, high-performance materials and robust design that is vital for farming applications. For sensors and controls, designers can benefit from the many connectors that are designed for use in industrial networks, including the popular M12 series. Examples include products manufactured by HARTING (123-1082) , Molex (822-1583) and Phoenix Contact (794-4496) .

For connectors that are used frequently but still need to provide environmental protection, the push-pull design of the LEMO series is an ideal solution. The latest release is the T series (144-2718) , combining IP68 sealing with high-performance contacts and in excess of 3000 mating cycles.

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The popular Buccaneer series of connectors from manufacturer Bulgin combine robust, UV-stable plastic shells with secure mating and IP68 performance. The standard shell design has been adapted to include a wide range of connector interfaces, from multipole power applications to networking connectors using RJ45 and USB interfaces. The latest 6000 series (191-8165) even offers fibre optic connectivity using the popular LC interface, allowing the use of commercially available equipment and standardised termination techniques.

With the population of the globe predicted to exceed 10 billion by the middle of this century, the farming sector is under constant pressure. This is a challenge that can be met with the use of the latest smart technology, to improve productivity and reduce the impact on our environment. Connectivity is at the heart of these developments, and RS Components is here to help you select the products to make your next design a reality.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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