Nearly everyone I have spoken with about the Big Data debate — but not everyone — agrees that farmers “own” the data they develop and compile from their field operations; not simply “control” it, but “own” it.
Now, the next high-tech battle may be brewing: If a farmer buys a new tractor and wants to work on it himself, should he or she have access to the tractor’s engine control unit (tECU) in order to repair or modify it?
This was the question broached by a computer programmer who tried to help his friend who is a farmer. He posed it in an article entitled, “New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers,” which appeared in the Feb. 5 edition of wired.com.
The article’s author says, Dave the farmer “just wanted a better way to fix a minor hydraulic sensor. Every time the sensor blew, the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor. So for two days, Dave’s tractor lies fallow. And so do his fields.
“Dave asked me if there was some way to bypass a bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up. But fixing Dave’s sensor problem required fiddling around in the tractor’s highly proprietary computer system — the tractor’s engine control unit (tECU): the brains behind the agricultural beast.”
The programmer utilized all of his computer skills and experience to no avail. He writes, “One hour later, I hopped back out of the cab of the tractor. Defeated. I was unable to breach the wall of proprietary defenses that protected the tECU like a fortress. I couldn’t even connect to the computer. Because John Deere says I can’t.
“Modifications and troubleshooting require diagnostic software that farmers can’t have. Even if a farmer managed to get the right software, calibrations to the tECU sometimes require a factory password. No password, no changes — not without the permission of the manufacturer.”
Of course, the article’s author takes a swipe at dealers. He says, “The dealer-repair game is just too lucrative for manufacturers to cede any control back to farmers.”
Anyone who used to work on their own car can empathize with this farmer. But I’m not sure where I stand on this debate. Warranty issues aside, should someone who pays $200,000 or $300,000 or more for a product have access to its inner workings if they want to fix or modify it for whatever reason?
The writer goes on to say: “Dave paid for the tractor; he owns what’s tangible: the wheels, the metal chassis, the gears and pistons in the engine. But John Deere owns everything else: the programming that propels the tractor, the software that calibrates the engine, the information necessary to fix it. So, who really owns that tractor?”
Apparently there is a group looking into this very issue. It’s called Farm Hack and is described as an online community of farmers, designers, developers and engineers. Take a few minutes to read the original piece and let me know what you think by taking this one-question, 10-second survey.
What you might find as interesting as the article itself are the comments that follow. As of this writing, there were 283 comments on the original article. Some address the subject of proprietary technology, but notice how quickly the discussion devolves into the inane argument about how big farmers are putting little farmers out of business.