by Kyle Wiens, mirrored from Wired magazine
I squatted down in the dirt and took stock of my inadequate tools. Over my left shoulder a massive John Deere tractor loomed. I came here to fix that tractor. So far, things weren’t going as planned.
I’m a computer programmer by training, and a repairman by trade. Ten years ago, I started iFixit, an online, DIY community that teaches people to repair what they own. Repair is what I do, and that I was being rebuffed by a tractor was incredibly frustrating.
I tossed my wrenches and screwdrivers. The conventional tools of my trade had no power here. This job called for something different. Armed with wire, alligator clips, a handful of connectors, and a CANbus reader, I launched myself back into the cab of the tractor. Once more into the breach, dear friends!
The family farmer who owns this tractor is a friend of mine. He 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.
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.
Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil.
Farming Goes High Tech
Dave is a DIY kind of guy. But Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing. He’d like to harvest the information that his tractor collects to learn more about how his crops grow. He’d like to troubleshoot error codes. Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself—because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.