GPS Steering Technology: Finding The Right Fit

You probably won’t find a more competitive market segment in agriculture these days than GPS steering. But despite the differences among manufacturers and marketing, there’s one thing they agree on – the potential buyer needs to be absolutely clear about why he needs GPS steering, and what he intends to do with it.

“After two years of rapid development, manufacturers are hard at work building product lines to meet the broad needs of the market,” says Rick Heard, North American sales manager for Farmscan. “Currently, there is a rapid growth of farmers and applicators wanting automatic steering, but they are being held back by price, performance, expandability, and support,” says Heard. “All of these are being addressed by companies like ours and others.”

Combine the rapid technology development in the market, the expense of the system, and the importance of the potential payback, and it becomes imperative that growers and applicators make the right call. Here are the key considerations going into the buying decision process:

Understanding Of Cost. One of the convenient realities of GPS steering systems is that the more accuracy you want, the higher the cost. Initial investment from “ground zero” to “ready to go” can range from under $10,000 for the most basic sub-meter (6- to 12-inch) package to $40,000 and up for realtime kinematic (RTK) systems, depending on the scope of what’s needed. Of course, these costs must be considered along with the potential payback of the system in efficiency, fuel, labor, and other savings benefits, but you need to be willing and able to make that initial investment.

Accuracy And Your Operation. What level of accuracy you need in the field gets you in a specific category of products and investment, and there’s pretty clear agreement of what is needed for typical field operations.

“What operations you are doing translates straight to accuracy, and what DGPS you pick,” says Roz Buick, product manager for Trimble. “We work with customers to understand what their needs are. All crops and operations have different maximum and minimum accuracy needs.”

The “least” accurate sub-meter systems “make the most sense when doing broadacre spraying, improving accuracy over foam markers,” says Jerry Schmitt, general marketing manager – worldwide for AGCO Global Technologies. In broadacre situations, seeding, tillage, and harvest operations may also be appropriate for sub-meter systems.

Decimeter accuracy (2- to 4-inch pass-to-pass), which requires use of OmniSTAR HP differential GPS (DGPS) signal and a product capable of utilizing it, provides even tighter pass-to-pass accuracy and adequately replaces row markers for tillage, application, seeding, and harvest operations.

The next step up for technology available today is RTK, which provides sub-inch accuracy that is repeatable – that is, you can return to the exact spot in the field, operation after operation, year after year. For example, the ability to do true-strip till has been an exciting prospect for early adopters of RTK technology. For applications in higher revenue crops, such as drip tape installation and seed bed preparation, RTK is also well suited.

Whatever you choose, accuracy should be central to the discussion. “If not, a customer may over-purchase or under-purchase the correct accuracy system,” says Schmitt.

Take A Longer Look. All manufacturers recommend looking into the future and how that might affect your business. If you plan on growing, the GPS steering package should be able to grow with you.

Pencil In All Potential Benefits. It’s important to identify all the potential benefits. Greater accuracy will increase field speed, reduce fuel costs, and allow work to start earlier, run later, and continue longer. And beyond the hard cost benefit, don’t underestimate the “softer” benefits that the technology brings.

“The biggest benefit in my opinion that we never talk about is how an operator feels at the end of the day,” says Kevin Monk, product manager with John Deere Ag Management Solutions. “I do not know of any studies that look at fatigue factors, but this is one of the biggest comments people who use our AutoTrac make.”

Equipment Considerations

With an understanding of what you want from your GPS steering system, here are some things to keep in mind when comparing equipment:

Compare Features Apples To Apples. Some of the terminology discussed earlier such as terrain compensation, contouring, and other features of systems can be confusing and may mean slightly different things to different companies. Any feature that’s critical to achieving your goals with automatic steering should be tested thoroughly with any piece of equipment you consider purchasing.

Current And Future Fleet. With the exception of Trimble’s EZ Steer and John Deere’s Universal Steering Kit, a hydraulic interface will need to be installed on any vehicle equipped with GPS Steering. Are these hydraulic kits available in the steering package you are considering for the fleet you operate?

Portability. Is it important that the unit be able to move from one vehicle to another? How simple or complex a process is this?

Upgradeability. Can you move up in accuracy without changing out all the components, or without a significant additional investment? Manufacturers warn that “accuracy is addictive” and to beware of short-term cost savings that result in disappointment with the end results and higher costs to get to the next level. Many systems today offer upgradeability from sub-meter all the way up to sub-inch.

Data Sharing. Will the system allow you to share field data with other equipment?

Cab Clutter. What will adding a GPS steering system do to your equipment’s cab area?

Reliability Of Supplier. GPS steering is a significant investment of time and dollars at any level, so it’s critical that you work with a reliable supplier. “Is there a specialist on staff at the dealershop you bought it from to help with problems? asks Deane Malott, marketing manager, AutoFarm. “Is someone available to come to your place of business and help work out issues on-site, or do you have to talk it through over the phone? Does the warranty include getting a loaner when your system goes down, or are you out of commission for a week while your unit is being repaired? These are all important issues to work out in advance.”

Completing The Puzzle

GPS steering can bring incredible economies to your operation, and competition for your business has never been greater. This is the time to put the systems, and the suppliers, to the test.

Do your homework, take a lot of test drives, and work closely with your suppliers. You’ll find the system that’s right for you.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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