Case Study: How Atlas Correction Service is Positioning Agriculture for Success in Argentina
Plantium in Santa Fe, Argentina, is a full-service provider of precision agricultural guidance systems to some of Argentina’s largest farming operations.The company makes its own guidance and control devices, installs them, and offers farmers real-time, remote support if required. Precision agriculture is a very large market, and to compete with multi-national firms in this space, Plantium has to be competitive primarily with outstanding customer service and end-to-end attention to detail. In 2015, Plantium switched to the Atlas GNSS Global Correction Service as the primary means of providing precise, real-time location corrections to their customers, and the receivers they design and build themselves are based on Atlas-ready OEM (original equipment manufacturer) boards from Hemisphere GNSS.
The Atlas GNSS Global Correction Service, developed and administered by Hemisphere, is a subscription-based global corrections service delivered by L-band satellites. “L-Band” is a 1 to 2 GHz frequency band allocated to satellite navigation and telecommunications, and Hemisphere builds L-band capability into Atlas-ready receivers and OEM boards to provide worldwide, scalable, real-time kinematic (RTK) location accuracy with corrections based on all modern satellite constellations — GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo, etc. — and approximately 200 reference stations around the world. Corrections from the reference stations are transmitted to Atlas-enabled receivers via L-band and strategically located geostationary satellites. L-band distribution coverage ranges from 75°N to 75°S, excluding only the extreme polar regions.
“We design, manufacture, and sell precision agriculture systems, including automatic pilot/steering, spraying control, seed metering, etc.,” says Plantium Robotics Engineer Federico Baulies. “We also design and build our own monitors, controllers, and autopilots into existing machinery. Our autopilot and mapping functionalities absolutely require robust positioning in difficult atmospheric conditions, low convergence times, and very high reliability — as close to 100% uptime as possible. We have been using Atlas for well over a year now, and on all these factors it is absolutely a better solution for our applications, and our clients. And Hemisphere has been better in ways we did not expect as well, like their support and the attention they give to their OEM boards that we build into our equipment. Atlas is the best option in our region.”
Providing a better and more reliable location service is critical to Plantium’s business model. “There are some very big, multi-national companies in this market, names like New Holland and John Deere,” Baulies explains. “The only way we can be competitive is to focus on the local market, be competitive on price and quality, and provide much better customer support. As a part of our SBOX7 + DirectDrive + VADER system, Atlas really helps with all of these — it is a well-priced service and very reliable in terms of uptime and accuracy. And from our point of view, the tools it gives us to diagnose and solve problems in real-time are probably its best feature.”
As of early 2017, Plantium had about 600 Atlas-enabled devices (monitors and smart antennas) placed with customers and in operation around Argentina. “In operation” means that the devices are installed on tractors and other agricultural equipment to guide operations like harvesting, spraying, and seeding. Depending on the time of year, Plantium has hundreds (growing into thousands) in use at once. “During the harvest, September and November here, it is very likely that basically all our installed devices will be operating at the same time,” says Baulies. “And it is also during harvest that automatic steering is most important — farmers need to work long hours during this brief window, and our equipment, plus Atlas corrections, let’s them keep working after the sun goes down. That used to be impossible.”
Seeding in spring is also a demanding time of year. Daily hours are not as long, but the work requires extreme precision. “For some operations, the Atlas H30 (30 cm 95%) is fine,” Baulies says. “But seeding requires more precision, and the Atlas H10 level service (8 cm 95%) is required.”
This means that the Plantium support department is always busy, and occasionally slammed. “We have anywhere from four to 10 people working in support, depending on the season. And since farming operations tend to be urgent, we really have to help quickly to be of real use to our clients. Atlas helps with this, as do the Hemisphere boards we build into our smart antennas.”
Baulies says that one of the outstanding Atlas differences for Plantium is the greatly improved customer support options. “We have had a boom in sales since switching to Atlas, and 80% of our new installations are using it now, I am glad to say. Without Atlas, our current support situation would be much worse. Since after-sale support is a key feature of our business, this is very important for us.”
The main difference is the real-time diagnostic tools built into the Atlas correction service. “As soon as we hear of an issue, from operators or from alarms built into our monitors, we can collect several working variables — such as interference and satellite noise — immediately, from our offices, and diagnose many problems instantly,” Baulies explains. “That means we do not have to wait for 30 minutes to see if our client will get convergence — we know right away. A lot of that capacity is built right into the Hemisphere OEM boards or from the way the Atlas service is designed.” These diagnostic tools also help on the customer’s end. The Atlas service and Hemisphere’s OEM boards make very clear user interfaces possible, and end users are rarely confused about the state of their equipment. “Basically, a single light is either green or blinking with a countdown,” Baulies says. “And if there are problems or delays, a simple menu system helps determine issues.”
And once a problem is diagnosed, Plantium engineers can implement fixes quickly, using cellular connectivity. “We can often diagnose and fix a problem remotely, sometimes in the same phone call,” Baulies says. “Of course, some remote farms do not have good cellular coverage, but even then, we are able to figure out quickly what is going on and give suggestions for a fix over internet or landlines. And frankly, Atlas itself is almost never the problem — I can not really remember a serious failure due to the service, it is more often operator error or a problem with hardware.”
Plantium started evaluating Atlas after becoming frustrated with a previous correction service that was less precise and less reliable. They found that Hemisphere representatives were very willing to work with them during evaluation, providing temporary licenses aimed at testing, and responding to a particular issue that had been challenging Plantium clients for some time.
“For most of the work done by our clients, Hemisphere’s highest ‘H10’ accuracy level (8 cm) is just right,” Baulies explains. “But for some work, such as spraying and harvesting, it would be nice if clients could switch to the lower cost, lower accuracy ‘H30’ (30 cm) service to save money on those operations. Our previous service did not even offer the option, but when we knew it existed, Hemisphere tweaked it a bit for our needs, and worked with us in a way to efficiently switch as needed. The H10 license quality and the possibility of having different subscription options — one month, four month, and one year — has had a very good reception among our customers and resellers. It has been very cost-effective for us and appreciated by our clients, and it is a good example of how responsive Hemisphere’s support can be.”
Licensing and service upgrades are also handled efficiently, and can be directly forwarded to customers in the (literal) field, without having to schedule specific dates and times for uploads.
Plantium’s clients are mainly in the northern half of Argentina, since “Agriculture of the kind that we support is unusual in the southern parts of the country,” according to Baulies. “So, I can not say from experience how good the Atlas coverage is there. But in our region it is basically uniform, with very few uptime or convergence issues. Even when atmospheric conditions are difficult, we see good coverage, and that was a specific problem with previous services.”
One reason Plantium looked to Atlas for better positioning corrections was that they had been working with Hemisphere for more than five years, purchasing OEM boards for use in their own equipment. “We mainly used Hemisphere’s P326 boards, installed in our smart antenna devices, and before the P326 we used their P200 series,” Baulies says. “We make everything ourselves, except the boards, and assemble them ourselves too. There are several hundred of our devices in use in Argentina, with Hemisphere boards installed.” Plantium appreciated the consistency of Hemisphere’s design and support when purchasing boards. During the time they have been purchasing and installing Hemisphere OEM boards, there have been no unexpected changes that would require redesign of Plantium equipment. “You would think that would be basic for any serious company,” Baulies says. “But in fact we had problems with this, and with quality, when working with other manufacturers. So that experience gave us even more confidence when considering Atlas.”
Plantium’s most important Hemisphere OEM device is the VADER Smart Antenna, which is compatible with all their systems and has become an important part of the company’s growth strategy. “In 2017, we expect to add 900 customers, our biggest year ever. Hemisphere will be an important partner in this growth.”
Switching to Atlas has been so successful for Plantium that the company is considering expansion into new niches, like machine control, large-scale lawn mowing, sports fields, and construction.
“For us, the Atlas correction subscription service has been more reliable and efficient, more accurate, and a better value,” Baulies says with a grin. “We recommend it to everybody…except our competitors!”