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Locked out of a machine's programming

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I'm a writer for a company called iFixit, which offers free open-source repair manuals for all kinds of electronics. We're doing research on technologies that have been limited by the DMCA, and—with help from some folks law students around the country—we've been specifically looking at farming equipment. Essentially, the DMCA is a massive copyright law that limits a person's ability to modify or hack the programming on a device or machine, if that hack involves getting around some sort of technological protection measure -- like say a password, or an encryption, or possibly even a proprietary interface.

We've been researching the ways in which this kind of law could affect a farmer's ability to tinker with, modify, or repair their farm equipment. In the course of our research, we came across FarmHack and thought you all have some insight for us. Has anyone here run across a situation where they needed to access, tweak, or repair the software on a piece of machinery, but couldn't because the software was "locked down" in some way? Or there was some sort of measure put in place by the manufacturer to keep the owner from looking at and/or fiddling with programming in farm equipment?

Dorn's picture

Hi Julia, It is funny you should mention this. I was just struggling with errors on my 1992 Kobleco Excavator engine CPU - which runs a throttle from a potentiometer through stepper motor and some logic based on engine speed and hydraulic flow. It has been giving me some issues and there is no documentation in the parts or user manual other than a very rudimentary diagram which makes diagnosis very challenging. There is essentially no ODBII type interface for diagnosis. A replacement CPU and all of this tiny logic costs $3500 and the stepper motor for throttle control about $1600. Outrageous for their component value and re- programing and diagnosis would be very difficult, and it may be that there is a bad ground or other issue causing the error rather than the CPU itself. The dealer claims that they would need to bring the whole machine to the shop to run diagnostics. I see no reason why with documentation the CPU could be replaced with an arduino/raspberrypi or similar with open diagnosis and interface - that way it could be easily and cheaply replaced as part of the diagnosis and standard pots and actuators could be fit. I have also been actively replacing filter housings with marine hardware that is less proprietary to make servicing easier and less model specific inventory dependent.

I would love to see a universal engine control unit with downloadable settings that could be retrofit.

I think your service would be a great value to this community. Look forward to following your efforts.

iFixit_Julia's picture

Hey Dorn, Drop me a line! I'd love to talk to you more about tinkering with and repairing farm equipment for a series of articles we're working on. julia@ifixit.com

jbd's picture

Was there an off-line follow up conversation on this thread?