Farm security special: Clever keys could cut crime

For a while it seemed like there was very little to stop a thief nicking the expensive tractor or telehandler that he had his beady eye on. But manufacturers are finally bringing out some decent-sounding security measures to turn back the tide of crime.

Concerned about the inconvenience and cost suffered by customers who have their tractor stolen, and stung by criticism of a “one key fits all” policy, manufacturers Fendt and John Deere have started fitting immobiliser technology that makes it a lot more difficult to steal their latest machines.

“These are very secure systems,” says Alan Bignell, vehicle security engineer at Thatcham, the insurance industry’s vehicle research and certification body.

“We’ve examined them from two aspects – how easy it is to overcome the system or replace the components involved; and how robust are the controls to prevent coded electronic components falling into the wrong hands.”

To pass the practical test, the systems must prevent the vehicle being started and driven away within a time limit that Mr Bignell, understandably, prefers not to reveal.

“On both counts, these new systems are impressive and earned Thatcham certification, which means they achieve a certain standard and may qualify for an insurance premium discount,” he says.

More effective after-market immobilisers are also being introduced that will protect tractors and other agricultural vehicles already in service.

Using either keypad codes or transponder keys, the Thatcham-certified systems from Vapormatic and Enigma, as well as the MLS hydraulics isolator, also give a good level of protection, says Alan Bignell. The new Agri-Watch system from Heler Electronics has also done well in tests; the final results of the certification process will be available soon.

“The critical thing with any after-market immobiliser is the quality of the installation,” he emphasises. “If it’s done well, then these devices are effective but it has to be done in a way that makes it difficult for someone with a bit of expertise to use by-pass wiring to get the tractor started.”

Mr Bignell advises farmers purchasing an anti-theft system to have it installed by an engineer certified as a Thatcham-recognised installer.

Manufacturer-supplied systems 


The introduction of electronically-managed engines to meet new standards of exhaust emissions has been the catalyst for the introduction of integrated immobilisers.

The investment in time and technology required has been considerable, so it is understandable that manufacturers have waited for a convenient opportunity to introduce new systems into an already-complex vehicle production system.

They have also had to establish a secure database of owners, tractor identification numbers and immobiliser codes, as well as find ways to prevent coded components falling into the wrong hands.


The Fendt Secure system has been available on Fendt 900 Vario tractors since 2007 and is now also standard on the latest Fendt 700 and 800 Vario tractors.

The system involves a key with a built-in transponder. This carries a unique code number that is read by a recognition device around the ignition key barrel. If the key isn’t recognised the engine can’t be started.

“Each key has a standard blade to get you into the cab. That’s partly for operator convenience but also to avoid the complexity of having unique keys and locks for every tractor,” says Richard Shelton, UK sales manager.

“Also, if someone is out to steal a £120 radio from a tractor, I’d rather make it easier than smashing a £400 window to get at it.”

Owners are supplied with two distinctive keys. A master is kept as a back-up that can be retrieved relatively quickly if they are mislaid or stolen.

However, additional or replacement keys can only be supplied after all system components – including the engine ECU, immobiliser ECU and any keys – have been returned to the Fendt factory for re-coding.

“In addition, the transaction can only be paid for through an AGCO bank account, so the checks against coded components being obtained fraudulently are very robust,” says Mr Shelton.

John Deere

Deere’s approach is similarly robust: “We can supply additional or replacement transponder keys but you can’t just pop into your local dealer and get them,” points out product specialist Mark James.

Two keys are supplied as part of the standard package available on all ‘R’ generation tractors – the 6R built in Europe and the 7R and 8R/8RT built in the US.

The Thatcham organisation has certified the immobiliser system on the 6R but has asked for modifications to the installation on US-built tractors to fully meet the standard laid down for a vehicle attack. Alan Bignell is waiting for a call to complete the certification process.

Deere has previously relied on supplying security locks for cab doors as a barrier to tractor theft. These are still available for 6000-series tractors at £77 a set through the parts department, along with anti-vandal kits comprising lockable engine side panels, and fuel and oil caps.

The opportunity to introduce an integrated immobiliser provides a more robust solution for tractors that are most in demand by those who are happy to make a purchase without asking too many questions.

“The ignition key has the same cut as a normal tractor key, so operators or service technicians can still get into the cab of a locked tractor and turn on the electrics to make checks or extract data,” Mr James points out.

And although the engine can be started, it does not run for long.

“A coded transponder within the key is detected by an antenna around the barrel,” explains Mark James. “The engine can be started using the wrong key but it will run for only two seconds before the injectors stop working.”

After another nine attempts, the fuel system shuts down altogether; the engine won’t fire up and other electronic systems stop working.

“It’s a pretty robust defence against theft; we supply two transponder keys as standard but owners can order up to three more at £60 each so that different operators can use the same tractor,” he points out. “Lost or stolen keys can be replaced but not straight from a dealer; we have a secure process for that.”

Response from buyers so far has been positive, Mr James reports: “Smaller operators with just two or three tractors say it’s a good thing and have been very happy with the initiative,” he says. “I’ve only had one owner who said it was more trouble than it’s worth – but he runs a lot of tractors with casual operators who seem to lose keys for a living.”

Richard Shelton at Fendt has also had positive feedback: “Everyone likes the system,” he says. “But I warn them that owners and operators have to take precautions to keep the keys secure; if the tractor gets stolen with the keys in or they’ve been left somewhere visible or obvious, there’s no guarantee that the insurance company will pay out.”

After-market units 

Thatcham lists three certified immobiliser systems suitable for retro-fitting to farm tractors and other agricultural equipment.

• Vapormatic’s VLC 5501 immobiliser uses a wireless keypad so there are no wires to trace to the two electrical circuit breakers, which obviously have to be installed in a less-than-obvious location to avoid being easily bypassed.

Up to five different user codes can be set up in addition to the master, giving easy multiple driver access, and the backlit keypad means it can be used in the dark. Operators can re-start the engine within four minutes of switching it off without re-entering the code.

An over-ride disc is supplied for mobilisation in an emergency or if the keypad is damaged accidentally or in an attempt to steal the tractor. The keypad and disc change the transmission code sent to the blockers each time they are used to prevent cloning.

Up to two years’ warranty is available for the device, which retails at £288 plus fitting.

• Enigma Vehicle Systems, which specialises in tracking, security and fleet management, produces the E-Lock 3 immobiliser for tractors and other farm vehicles.

It isolates three electrical circuits and has a keypad to enter multiple user codes for a retail price of £320.

A retro-fit system that combines features of both the OEM and other after-market kits is completing Thatcham tests. Called Agri-Watch and supplied by Heler Electricals, it uses a transponder key cut to fit the vehicle’s existing ignition key barrel, around which is the decoder. Blockers isolate three separate electrical circuits on the vehicle.

Three keys are supplied, with up to nine possible per vehicle, and each key can be programmed to work on any number of protected vehicles.

• MLS takes a different approach, installing a valve that isolates the vehicle’s steering mechanism – as well as the lift system on a telehandler, for example. Park with a tractor’s wheels on full lock and it would near impossible to drive it on to a flat bed or into a container.

“There is no electrical connection that could be by-passed,” notes Sean Miller of MLS. “Instead, the valve is operated by a patented key with 60m combinations that’s impossible to copy. We install the system ourselves and keep a register to ensure a secure procedure for supplying replacements.”

The system costs £550-600 installed.

• A more ambitious immobiliser system was previewed by New Holland at last year’s Agritechnica show. There is no word on whether the company will market the Smart Key concept but it could potentially provide vehicle management data as well as anti-theft security.

Each operator would have their own Smart Key equipped with a programmable radio frequency identification (RFID) chip. This could give operators access to all or only selected vehicles in a fleet and could impose limitations on how a legitimate operator uses a machine – by setting a maximum road speed for a novice driver, for example.

It could also carry an individual operator’s preferred machine settings so that when the key is inserted into the ignition these settings would automatically be installed on the machine’s IntelliView monitor.

The Smart Key could also record individual operator profiles, including items such as average fuel consumption, area worked, time worked and so on. This information would be transferrable via the mobile phone data network to a computer-based management records system for analysis and use in accounts and payroll, etc.