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AEF Plugfest, between history and the future

This year Plugfest will celebrate its tenth anniversary in Bologna, the event is dedicated to ISOBUS and to digital technologies for agriculture. Born from the initiative of a group of engineers, Plugfest has become over the years a highly technical event, a benchmark for the activities of networking and protocol and operating systems integration developed by several companies that produce new generation electronic technologies

by Alessio Bolognesi
June 2018 | Back

The history of Plugfest began in 2001 when a small group of just over fifteen “nerd” engineers gathered in Wageningen, Holland. Their aim was to sit around tables overcrowded by oscilloscopes, power supplies, testers, wave generators and laptops, to test the compatibility of the first ISOBUS implementations on agricultural machine control units. Those fifteen engineers were pioneers of Plugfest and began to highlight the discrepancies between the ISOBUS implementations of the various manufacturers and those related to the interfacing between the “working sets” (the tool control units) and the “virtual” terminals “(ISOBUS displays). 

The result of that first informal technical meeting was the chance of adjusting the ISO 11783 standard and of starting to give it a common understanding shared among all manufacturers. 

The following year we decided to go to the USA, to Dekalb, Illinois. We were inside a test facility very similar to a farm where we could also test entire machines: therefore, tractors of different brands, with on board their respective Virtual Terminal and Tractor ECU, were connected to different tools ISOBUS to check their compatibility. 

The numbers had grown, but the community was still rather small: about twenty engineers representing ten companies, which however included the majority of the world’s largest tractors and machinery manufacturers, proving how much they were investing in ISOBUS technology.  This first change between Europe and the United States of America has become history. 

Plugfest has evolved into an event of increasing importance, especially since the world industry of machinery manufacturers and systems for agriculture met in AEF to consolidate and disseminate ISOBUS technology. Now they are called AEF Plugfest and we organize two of them every year: the first, usually between late April and early May, in Lincoln (Nebraska); the second, usually in September, rotating among Italy, Germany and, recently, France.  If at the beginning there were only a dozen engineers, now the Plugfest has hundreds of experts who meet twice a year to test compatibility and correct ISOBUS communication between the devices made by dozens of companies. They also check their components with the AEF Conformance Test Tool, the automatic test tool used by official AEF laboratories to certify ISOBUS devices.  For about two years the organizational coordination of what has now officially become the “AEF Plugfest” is an honor and a task of FederUnacoma.  The test days have increased from one to three. In each of these days, each device is tested while operating with dozens of devices made by other companies, following a strict and precise schedule that provides 30-minute slots for each test.  During this time the engineers of the different companies connect their control units, observe the messages exchanged, record any errors, try to understand where the problems come from and solve them in real time before moving to the next slot and again repeat the procedure tests with other devices of other manufacturers.  At the end of the three days each “client” control unit (normally the tool or working set control unit) is tested for the correct implementation of its AEF Functionalities matched with each “server” type control unit (such as Universal Terminal or Task Controller) and with the AEF Conformance Test Tool.

From this tale it is hard to imagine how intense these three days are, but it is worth knowing that at the end of each day the engineers are exhausted and completely lost in the bulk of CAN messages and binary information that they have to analyze (if you know Matrix, the movie, with the code flowing like a waterfall, it could give you the idea ...).

But nowadays AEF Plugfest is no longer just about testing.  It has become the meeting of the meetings of the AEF working groups (PT), in order to take the chance to have all the experts gathered in one place.  Every edition holds an AEF Conference Day (an opportunity open to the public to get updates on the most recent topics and technologies developed by AEF) and the usual AEF Gala Dinner, the social event that relaxes all participants. Recently, from May 14th to 18th, the usual AEF Spring Plugfest was held in Lincoln, NE, at the now usual location of the Embassy Suites hotel: it was a success, not only because the numbers remained at the level of the previous edition, but also because countries such as South Korea and other Asian countries are now entering the ISOBUS world, witnessing how much this technology is becoming internationally increasingly important.

This has been made possible also thanks to the efforts of AEF and of the experts taking part in the working groups to make it more stable, compatible and performing.

The Lincoln AEF Plugfest was also an opportunity to talk about connectivity and data in agriculture, the real challenge of the next decade together with automation in the field and electrification.  

This was done in an interesting meeting where AEF and AgGateway have shared what is being done internationally to allow the exchange of data in agriculture in accordance with world-wide shared ways in order to have a common language spoken and understood by all the stakeholders of the entire agri-food supply chain. After the North American event’s success, however, it is not time for the AEF Plugfest organizing committee to let up: the group coordinated by FederUnacoma (which is also a member of the AEF Steering Committee) is in fact working on the September meeting in Bologna. 

Indeed, after the great success of 2016, which saw record numbers (over 250 people between engineers and business managers, and 125 tested devices),  and after the event in Stuttgart in 2017, now the European AEF Plugfest is once again hosted in the Hotel Savoia Regency’s setting in Bologna. 

It will be an opportunity to improve the participation record, also thanks to the growing number of Italian companies leading players on the ISOBUS world and on the electronic technologies for Agriculture. And for those companies that have not yet approached this world, it will be possible to participate in the AEF Conference Day and to visit the real Plugfest, that is to say, the area where the experts perform the tests, and to experience firsthand technologies and see how quickly they are evolving on the machines that farmers use every day in every part of the world.  But Bologna will also be a special Plugfest. Founded in 2008, AEF will celebrate its first 10 years in the capital of Emilia Romagna, with an event in which all who have contributed to the technological development and to make AEF an important reality will be invited and will speak. It will be an opportunity, therefore, to see ISOBUS’ legendary faces and to understand what is before us in the near future.


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