It seems as though everywhere you turn today, you see a car commercial showing off new features and capabilities that brings us one step closer to the Holy Grail goal of autonomous vehicles. However, we always see these ideas for passenger vehicles but not for off-highway equipment like tractors and combines.
What if I told you that these vehicles, especially in the agricultural industry, are closer than you think in realizing fully autonomous driving? Thanks to a significant rise in the amount of electronics being used in these vehicles and in their improved capabilities to interact with the world around them, we are beginning to see this vision come to fruition while also challenging engineers in completely new ways.
When looking at the agricultural industry, the driving factor continues to be improving and maintaining a very high yield in crop production. Higher yield results in more efficient production and greater profits, but the question remains of how exactly to do this.
With the rise of electronics in vehicles combined with the ability to have distributed systems communicating with each other, we have seen the agricultural industry innovate in several ways, with automated driving and sensor fusion among others.
Imagine a situation where distributed sensors can monitor soil conditions, moisture, and other specifics about the crops to inform farmers about areas needing water or fertilizer. These sensors could also monitor weather patterns and harvest time for crops to help instruct farmers on the most optimal time to gather the ready product, resulting in maximum yield. And once this decision is made, the vehicles themselves can then drive automatically with the harvester and loader communicating constantly with one another to take the most efficient routes in the field and ensure no product is wasted.
In reality, these situations are already happening and the industry is seeing very positive results. But with great success comes a lot of responsibility and extra effort, especially in the development of the agricultural vehicles.
Ultimately, the more these kinds of features are incorporated into off-highway equipment, the more electronic systems and embedded controllers will be required, resulting in a greater challenge for engineers designing these systems to ensure reliability and an overall high level of quality. This also presents the challenge of being able to validate the new designs in a timely manner that meets customer demands, as timelines can appear quite difficult given the amount of continuous innovation.
These challenges and goals are the same ones that the automotive industry faces and, as a result, we have seen industry players come up with innovative solutions. For example, automotive OEMs like General Motors have implemented a strategy called “from road to lab to math” where the goal is to reduce test costs and time by moving the testing to earlier in the development process. By doing this, they are able to find bugs and defects earlier in the lab, making them significantly more inexpensive to fix when compared to physical testing in a vehicle or on a test track.
This is where incorporating more hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) testing can prove extremely beneficial. In being able to simulate the world and environment around electronic systems, companies can test their new features for automated driving and sensor fusion without having the full vehicle ready. Test time is significantly reduced and engineers can focus more on actually innovating because many of the bugs and faults can be found earlier in the development process.
It is also clear that engineers in this industry are being forced to plan for the future and understand what technologies are coming next. Given the pace of innovation, the goal of autonomy and automation will force more and more features into the electronics of these vehicles. Therefore, it is safe to say that we will not be able to validate systems in the same way with the same tools for long, which is why it is so critical to have a flexible HIL testing platform that is future-proofed. This is why NI’s HIL platform is designed to be exactly that and will scale as the systems do.
Whether it is incorporating new technologies like those for wireless communications or expanding existing test systems to account for the next ECU, an NI-based system allows engineers to focus on what they are good at—driving innovation.
Ian Fountain, Director of Application Segments, National Instruments, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.