Farm machinery manufacturers are throwing out a new word that will mean good things for machine operators: improved machine reliability and improved troubleshooting. And that potentially could mean less downtime.

What is ISOBUS and how will it affect a farm’s day-to-day operations? ISOBUS is the name for the International Standard Organization’s ISO 11783-1 standard document and the technologies it governs. Currently, the standard details how electronics on ag tractors and implements should work together – from the types of connectors and wiring to the organization and behavior of the bits racing through those wires.

ISOBUS’ shared wiring concept allows tractor and implement electronic control units (ECUs) to efficiently communicate over the same two wires, reducing the chance of failure. All networked electronics can also be diagnosed through one connection to the bus. That should reduce troubleshooting and, subsequently, downtime.

But the benefits of ISOBUS don’t stop there. As implement makers become more comfortable with the idea that an ISOBUS tractor will be hitched to their implements, they can dispense with duplicate components.

For example, with ISOBUS there is no need for a separate speed sensor on the implement. The implement’s ECU can rely on the speed data communicated in a standard language over standard wiring and available though a standard connector from the tractor’s sensor network.

ISOBUS will also improve machine management. Today, switching tractors and associated implements from planting to fertilizing to spraying and, finally, to harvesting requires moving an array of monitors/control boxes.

A single ISOBUS terminal can replace this hardware with a technology referred to as “virtual terminal.” Here’s how it works. When an ISOBUS-compliant implement is connected to a tractor, its ISOBUS terminal recognizes the implement and downloads control software from the implement’s on-board ECU. With this software, the ISOBUS terminal’s integrated buttons or touchscreen can be reconfigured easily.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to switch control boxes mid-harvest or resisted switching tractors because of the hassle of moving electronics. The convenience and flexibility that virtual terminals add to tractor management will be an obvious benefit of standardization.

Once implements and tractors can share data in a standard way, efficiency can be improved. For example, one advantage of a self-propelled forage harvester is that its engine management system has been optimized for powering the head, feed rolls, cutterhead and blower, all in one machine.

Now, compare its electronic integration capability to that of a pull-type harvester, where the tractor currently is unaware that the towed implement is a forage harvester. The tractor only considers the need for more draft and rotary power. With ISOBUS, and with permission from the tractor’s networked ECUs and the operator, the pull-type harvester’s ECU could achieve the same level of integration as its self-propelled counterpart.

Contract harvesters and farmers will reap the rewards of ISOBUS standardization. With ISOBUS, field data such as working hours and area can be readily transferred to a personal computer. Unfortunately, the intent of ISOBUS has yet to be fully realized. The standard is an evolving document, and manufacturers are working to conform their designs to meet it.

This is where the Agricultural Electronics Foundation (AEF) comes into play. It was organized by equipment manufacturers and related associations to coordinate adoption, conformance and promotion of ISOBUS. Considering the vast number of equipment combinations in use today, this process proves to be quite complex.

The AEF solution is two-fold, including a standardized test procedure and conformance database. This database is accessible by dealers and equipment operators at aef-isobus-database.org. At this site, operators can mix and match tractors, terminals and implements to reveal detailed information about their compatibility.

It’s early to expect all of our equipment to be in the database, but this will change. Stay tuned as this technology evolves and work with your dealer to begin to reap its benefits.