Automatic Steering Technology Update

Article excerpted from the June 2009 edition of CropLife magazine.

Automated steering systems have become standard tools for many in agriculture. And drivers are benefiting from continued improvements on both hydraulic and mechanical units, reports Ryan Molitor, marketing supervisor, Raven Industries.

Raven just started shipments on its SmartSteer mechnical drive unit that integrates with the company’s multi-tasking Cruizer, Envizio Pro, and Viper Pro field computers. “It clamps on the steering wheel and is simple to install, set up, and move between machines,” he says. It’s also quiet, and operators don’t have to remove their steering wheel to mount the unit.

In hydraulic steering, the company’s SmarTrax system is “going CANBus this summer” — allowing it to integrate with Raven’s field computers. “Operators can program and run everything through one screen, which makes their lives much easier,” he says.

This spring, Hemisphere GPS announced that operators can team its Outback Sts guidance system with the company’s eDrive TC hydraulic autosteering “for instant return on investment,” says Jeff Farrar, channel marketing manager.

In February, AutoFarm released the OnTrac2 GPS Assisted Steering System. Its unique split-gear design does not require removal of the steering wheel for installation; the OnTrac2 simply latches on and off for fast, easy transfer across multiple brands and types of vehicles, explains Wade Stewart, field marketing manager.

Last fall, Topcon Positioning Systems introduced its System 150 that’s simple to move from vehicle to vehicle, notes Rod Haarberg, North American precision agriculture sales manager.

Automatic steering has gone beyond — actually, behind — application rigs. John Deere AMS released iTEC (intelligent Total Equipment Control) Pro for its GreenStar 2 2600 display. The iTEC Pro module coordinates vehicle and implement functions with end-of-row turns. “By automating these tasks it allows the implement and machine functions to be performed consistently on headlands or internal boundaries as well as positions the machine correction for the next pass through the field,” says representative Sarah Davis.

In other features, “plug and play” is many drivers’ ideal, and Leica’s Christina Roth, marketing and communications manager, says mojoRTK’s console does just that. It can be installed in less than an hour.

TeeJet Technologies‘ Jennifer Burr, global marketing and communications manager, says the company keeps technology accessible by “building our autosteer lineup around the simple and robust interface of our CenterLine guidance platform.”

Crossing “color” barriers is becoming more common, with manufacturers making their automated steering systems compatible with a host of companies’ products. For instance, Stewart says regardless of how a rig is configured, users can customize the AutoFarm system to their machines for the greatest accuracy and performance. Trimble’s AgGPS Autopilot now has platform kits available for more than 450 vehicle models and more than 18 brands.

Choosing Signals

Higher inputs costs over the last couple of years have increased the need for advanced, more accurate steering solutions utilizing RTK GPS products, says Outback’s Farrar. “Nutrient placement, variable-rate application, section control, and implement steering are quickly becoming key tools required by today’s growers,” he says.

AutoFarm’s Stewart agrees that there’s definitely been more interest from customers in moving to RTK. He says most of the change is driven by growers’ choices of farming practices — strip-till, twin-row planting, inter-row seeding, and controlled traffic — that all demand high levels of accuracy and repeatability.

Trimble Agriculture Director of Marketing Rob Lindores reports that the company’s North American RTK network now serves more than 200 million acres for precision operations such as strip tillage, corn planting, and land leveling. And Davis notes that John Deere’s RTK networks now blanket some 170 million acres.

In addition to subscription services and personal or proprietary RTK networks, more applicators are looking into DOT and free CORS (continually operating reference station) networks. Many of these survey-grade networks are being built with tax dollars, so many states allow growers to access the RTK correction free of charge, explains Leica‘s Roth. “Leica’s mojoRTK console is the only fully integrated, auto-guidance system with a built-in CDMA cell modem, which allows drivers to connect to CORS networks through a data plan,” she explains.

TeeJet has placed the RX-600RTK receiver in its FieldPilot hydraulic assisted steering system, allowing users to operate with RTK level accuracy utilizing either the traditional base station or local CORS networks. “This receiver also allows users of certain tractors to install autosteer that interface via CAN communication —  eliminating the need to crack open any hydraulic lines,” explains Burr.

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