Something New: Automatic Steering, Sprayer Control, Connectivity

When our staff was polling precision agriculture insiders to find out what trends belonged in our Tech Top 5 listing, almost no one was surprised that three of hottest areas involved technologies that were barely out of diapers, metaphorically speaking, compared with the rest of the marketplace. As one respondent e-mailed: “This industry loves its bells and whistles when it comes to precision.” And there is little question that newer technologies tend toward those flashy, larger-than-life features which seriously excite end-users.

This certainly was the case for the first newbie within the Tech Top 5 — automatic steering, which seemed destined for widespread market acceptance from Day One. This was apparent during a ride-and-drive event held at the Midwest AG Industries Exposition in 2003, when one test rider was overheard saying: “This autosteer thing is great. Now I can finally get that DVD player I’ve always wanted in the cab.”

Of course, the ability to install an in-cab entertainment system wasn’t what motivated precision agriculture adopters to embrace automatic steering. This had more to do with the benefits such systems offered to sometimes overworked, perpetually-in-motion custom applicators and growers. “With automatic steering, you can reduce operator fatigue, operate 24 hours a day if necessary, and have two machines in the field at the same time,” says Bob Stewart, managing partner at Stewart Farms in Yorkville, IL.

Based upon the data, custom applicators have hurriedly installed automatic steering systems in their self-propelled sprayers for the same reasons. According to statistics compiled during the 2004 CropLife/Purdue University Retailer Precision Agriculture Adoption Survey, only 4% of respondents were using automatic steering in their operations at that time. By the time the 2007 survey was conducted, this percentage had jumped significantly, to 30%. According to the survey, his leap — coupled with the increased corn acreage figures and the opportunity for more acres in need of custom application work — should put automatic steering on a even faster track with precision agriculture users.

“Using automatic steering, operators can do their work more efficiently and accurately without overlaps or skips,” says Rick Heiniger, vice chairman of Hemisphere GPS. “Every bit of overlap that takes place in the field is 100% wasted product and money. Plus, the cost of automatic steering systems has dropped to the point where the payback is a lot quicker than it was a few years ago.”

The Greater Payback Quest

Another of the Tech Top 5, enhanced sprayer controls, also is benefitting from a quick payback ability. Options in this grouping include automatic boom height control from companies such as Norac, Inc. and Raven Industries and automatic boom section control.

According to Wade Prouty, OEM sales manager for Norac, his company’s Ultra Control 4 automatic boom height system features “smart” ultra sonic sensors, which are able to distinguish four different targets in the field simultaneously. They can also be designated for crop and soil modes.

“This offers several advantages for custom application work,” says Prouty. “It reduces operator stress and fatigue, increases application rates, protects the boom from damage, maintains proper spray tip height, and helps to reduce spray drift.” Coming in 2008, he adds, will be an Active Roll Control option. This will allow for automatic hydraulic control of the center section tilt and the sprayer boom to “ignore” chassis activity such as ruts and terraces.

As for automatic boom section control, this technology was projected to be the “next big trend” to follow in automatic steering systems’ wake back in early 2006 by several market watchers. At the time, large ag equipment manufacturers such as John Deere were beginning to introduce such systems for their products, and analysts foresaw plenty of market activity going forward. “Customers like the feature because it saves them money and makes spraying easier,” said one manufacturer representative in CropLife’s April 2006 issue. “The boom turns on and off automatically, which eliminates the need for the operator to focus on other aspects of spraying.”

Since then, a few researchers have put this money-saving claim to the test. Speaking at the InfoAg 2007 meeting in early July, Sid Siefken, channel sales manager, lightbar guidance and sensors for Trimble Navigation Ltd., told attendees about an automatic boom section control experiment conducted by the University of Missouri. “The research looked at how automatic boom section systems performed vs. conventional boom sections when it came to over-application of crop protection products,” said Siefken. “When the test was completed, researchers found that there was a 6.3% over-application of products in the field when automatic boom section control wasn’t in use.”

Rhett Schildroth, agricultural product marketing manager for Topcon Positioning Systems Inc., agrees. “The immediate payback utilizing this technology is anywhere from 5% to more than 25%, depending upon field layout and sprayer set-up,” says Schildroth. “As you can imagine, that kind of payback figure generates a lot of excitement.”

Making Connections

The final entry in the Tech Top 5 is a technology still making its way into the marketplace — connectivity. For many years, one of the big drawbacks to precision agriculture technology adoption has been a lack of standard communication between the different hardware and software components that drive the industry. “Look at it this way,” says W. William “Rudy” Rudolph, technical director for TeeJet Technologies. “Things in everyday life work because there is a basis for all their design criteria. If you buy a toaster at Wal-Mart in New York State, it will work when you plug it into a wall outlet in California.”

In ag equipment, this principle was long ago applied to hydraulics, he adds. However, precision agriculture systems have largely remained proprietary in their ability to communicate with each other. Since the mid-1990s, programmers around the world have been working toward a common standard for farm machinery manufacturers to follow, spearheaded by the development of LBS in Europe and J1939 in the U.S. In 2001, a unified standard was agreed upon, called ISO 11738 (commonly referred to as ISOBUS). Beginning in 2003, the big three equipment makers — John Deere, Case IH, and AGCO — started adopting ISOBUS into their systems.

According to Rudolph, ISOBUS-driven systems are now appearing in greater numbers than ever before. “With ISOBUS, users have several advantages,” he says. “These include a lower cost because they don’t have to purchase separate control devices for their implements, easy installation with standard plugs and cables, and all data collection is centralized. In addition, there is no need to worry about the next generation of software and equipment because ISOBUS devices will be compatible with all future upgrades and system introductions.”

With labor-intensive corn expected to expand acreage in the coming years, market observers predict the need for enhanced, more accurate, and cost-effective precision technologies will only grow. “I think this corn thing ain’t going to go away,” concludes Dean Fairchild, assistant vice president of agronomy for The Mosaic Co. “It is a golden time in agriculture, but we as an industry need to build upon precision agriculture practices to help this market vision expand.”

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