Fancom and Nobleo teamed up to develop a next-generation, decentralised control solution for climate and feeding automation systems used in pig, poultry and mushroom farming.
“The main change in the new climate automation system platform we’re developing for Fancom is that we’ve moved from a centralised to a decentralised architecture,” says Jeroen van Dooren, senior software architect at Nobleo.
In practice, this means that what used to be housed in a single control unit – all the hardware, board support package (BSP), control loop application plus a display – has now been distributed throughout several smaller control units. As Nobleo, we partner with a hardware producer to provide Fancom with a BSP for all those control units, running for example Linux and a RTOS (real-time operating system). As one of the founders of the new decentralised platform, Nobleo has provided the BSPs along with software building blocks that are used on every control unit.
“With the old model, all cables from the sensors – e.g. for temperature, humidity, NH3 – in farm houses with animals or crops feed into this,” says Jeroen. “And all the cables for the systems which control heating, cooling, air pressure and ventilation feed out of it. The problem with this setup is that, if the controller unit fails for any reason, everything goes down.”
One of the main challenges in redesigning the platform was closed control loops. “Say you have a temperature sensor in a farm house,” he explains. “Depending on the measurements it generates, you activate the system to either heat or cool that farm house. And then you measure the temperature again, and adjust again. But, if you don’t get your control loop correct, this can lead to oscillating temperatures that may cause stress to animals. You need intelligence in your system so you don’t alter the temperature too quickly or slowly, for example.”
To help predict and deal with this kind of behaviour, Nobleo – in cooperation with Fancom – simulated these control loops in MATLAB’s Simulink so they could be verified on a PC. “We tested different scenarios very thoroughly, including unforeseen events,” says Jeroen. “With a decentralised setup, there are many more situations you have to consider, and you have to come up with a solution for each one. In this model, we also captured Fancom’s process IP, and have documented it for the foreseeable future.”
The multiple control units in the new decentralised solution communicate to each other through a network. “This means you no longer have a single point of failure,” says Jeroen. “If one of the units malfunctions, the rest can continue to operate, albeit possibly in a degraded state.” This combination of hardware and software is designed to work with existing sensors and HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems already installed in farms. “However, this decentralised architecture also means that you must think about situations that simply couldn’t occur before.
What’s the expected system behaviour when one or more of these units goes down? All these scenarios must be discussed and tested, which required close cooperation with Fancom.”
A dry run started at the end of 2022 at a customer’s premises close to Fancom’s headquarters in the Netherlands. “That way it‘s possible to regularly check how things are going in practice,” says Jeroen. “The new system runs in parallel with the old one, sharing the same input signals but not yet regulating the climate, so we can accurately measure whether the behaviour is the same. Once we have enough confidence in the new system, we’ll let it take over and actively control the climate.” To determine if the new system is operating as intended, operational data is collected through APIs and pushed to the cloud for offline analysis. The commercial launch of the new decentralized system is expected in 2023.
Nobleo’s short term plan is to extend the new system with the weighing of livestock, where this provides valuable input to another closed control loop. Validation of the weighing solution will be conducted by another field-test. Looking further down the roadmap, Nobleo plans to add extensions like feeding, silo weighing, lighting control and pressure control to provide a rich toolset to the end-customer.
An interesting aspect of the new platform is that Nobleo made a conscious choice to deploy open-source software in it. “Everything we use is freely available,” says Jeroen. “That means that Fancom has no vendor lock-in and keeps a high-level of flexibility and scalability.