Electrical connectors for the new age of farming

9th May 2022
Kiera Sowery

From the monitoring drones that analyse the farmland, the sensors that monitor soil conditions, to the unmanned farming vehicles that harvest the crops, the way we farm is changing.

The term Agriculture 4.0 represents the anticipated changes in farming due to the implementation of these technologies. Here Tom Borland, UK and Ireland Country Manager at PEI-Genesis, explores the connectors that will make the connected farm of the future possible.

Survey drones fitted with a multispectral imaging system, allowing them to capture footage in the near-infrared range as well as the visual spectrum, are just one example of how farmers are turning to technology to build farms of the future. In this case, the drone provides a bird’s-eye video to detect problems not easily visible from the ground, including issues with irrigation, soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations.

What may once have been an unusual sight is increasingly becoming commonplace on farms globally. This paradigm shift means that, over the next five years, farms will make increasing use of everything from drones and field sensors, to autonomous harvesting equipment and cab-mounted GPS units.

With this change, farmers must update some of their electrical equipment. One component that’s easy to overlook in this process is the humble connector. Connectors are already used widely across the agricultural sector and are responsible for delivering power, connecting cameras to screens in the tractor cab, and allowing operators to send control signals to harvesting attachments.

While the connectors used in farming equipment are already designed to handle a variety of harsh conditions, it’s essential that connectors used on farms of the future are fit for purpose going forward.

Changing connector needs

While a stainless-steel connector is useful for heat shielding, its weight may make it less favourable for drone applications. Similarly, while a plastic or composite connector offers a low weight and strong connector — one that’s inherently resistant to corrosion and chemicals — plastic can become brittle with prolonged outdoor exposure and the heat from the sun. In some cases, a balance could be achieved with an aluminium connector featuring an electroless nickel plating, delivering a low weight, metalised connector that is strong and durable.

With this growing complexity, farmers must consider the ability to transfer power and high-speed data effectively. This may require high bandwidth fibre optic cables that can collect and process the data from all the sensors as well as the wireless control signals from the remote operator.

It will become vital in the coming years that farmers choose the correct connector across their smart farm, for everything from lighting and power systems, and steering and motion, to monitoring and control, data signals, powertrain and cabin interfaces.

At the most basic level, these connectors will be variations of existing cylindrical style M12 ethernet connectors, favoured for their rugged build, in addition to bayonet and push-fit, quick release designs that make it easier to unmate when wearing gloves and during cold weather. Instead of spending time unthreading a connector when changing over equipment, operators can save time by using a quick push-pull design.

These push-pull connectors have become increasingly popular across industry over the last decade for their ease of use and we may see them become standardised in many agricultural applications in the future.

At the more advanced end of the spectrum, connectors will make use of the ISO-Bus platform, a system that allows farmers to use different equipment from different manufacturers with the same tractor and towing vehicles, increasing compatibility as a result.

To further futureproof connector design, PEI-Genesis can support customers in designing a fully modular connector assembly, allowing farmers to integrate multiple types of connector into a single plate. This allows them to use connectors that meet today's needs but swap out the inserts when they need to upgrade the type of cable or configuration of contacts. This allows farmers to upgrade systems without incurring additional testing, drawing, reengineering and production costs.

As the transition to Agriculture 4.0 becomes a reality, farmers will need to ensure that equipment, including connectors, doesn’t become a costly bottleneck in facilitating this smooth transition. Thinking about your connectors now will make this connected future a reality.

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