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Precision Agriculture made possible by GPS

Jo Chytka
Hemingford, Neb.

Del Penlerick of Alliance, Neb., has both feet firmly planted in the 21st century and is looking off into the haze of the 22nd. Del owns and operates Data Link, L.L.C. a crop insurance agency which utilizes Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping and Geographical Information System (GIS) to verify the number of acres they insure, for Federal Crop Insurance purposes.

“In 1990 or 1991 I read an article on civilian GPS and became interested in and fascinated by the concept and possibilities of it,” he said.

“GPS was first used as a defense system for the U.S. Department of Defense who still controls and maintains the GPS signal. It utilizes computers in conjunction with 24 satellites orbiting the earth to identify a geometric position anywhere on earth. Every point on the surface of the earth is capable of having its own specific address.

“The first GPS civilian application was sold in 1984 by Trimble, this is very new technology; we are just getting our toes wet.

“DataLink, L.L.C. was organized specifically to address the evolution of GPS technology in agriculture. In December of 1997 we formed the company and in January of 1998 we were up and running.

“When we map an area we use an ATV equipped with GPS that creates the field boundary and calculates the acres down to the .0001 acres. A ‘clam shell’ is used which is a small Compaq computer that works like an Etch a Sketch that draws a line as you drive. This information is converted into picture format that is geographically aligned using GPS coordinates. We are able to enhance the maps with satellite imagery providing a photo of the farm with fields defined. We have mapped roughly 60,000 acres.”

Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is a factor in the accuracy mix. If WAAS is incorporated and enabled in the receiver being used the resulting DGPS accuracy becomes up to five times better. WAAS corrects for GPS signal errors caused by ionospheric disturbances, timing and satellite orbit errors and it provides vital integrity information regarding the health of each GPS satellite. WAAS is a free signal available in North America.

Del continued, describing some of the new technology available at DataLink, L.L.C. that fuels his passion for all things GPS.

“The natural evolution of the business took us to the cutting edge of precision agricultural technology. We can provide our customers with GPS machine guidance systems like lightbars, auto steering and sub-inch, RTK repeatable Autopilot systems for farming.

“The educational curve for the public is high due to unfamiliarity with the concept. We are gaining more acceptance as the degree of accuracy attained is realized.”

With a simple lightbar system on your tractor you can follow a signal that translates to a light on the bar; indicates you are following the signal correctly while red means a correction is needed. The lightbar has a GPS receiver incorporated and an antenna on the roof which receives the GPS signals. It operates on the WAAS signal with the integrated GPS.

Newer versions of the lightbar have added an LCD screen that helps with visual vehicle orientation and guidance during curves and turns.

Lightbar is not only used for tractors; trucks, swathers, floaters, high clearance sprayers and combines benefit as well.

You can even upgrade the lightbar system by adding EZ-Steer assisted steering that allows you to sit back, relax and let GPS steer your tractor, except when you need to turn around. The system has a manual override for that and for any situation warranting it.

“The level of accuracy depends on the receiver being used. For example, with integrated GPS operating on WAAS, one could expect 6-8 inch pass-to-pass operation accuracy,” said Del.

“The EZ-Steer was born on a napkin at a restaurant in Westminster, Colo. A handful of Trimble dealers for our Prairie Region and Art Lange, an engineer and one of the original Trimble people came up with the idea. We thought if we can light up a light to guide, why can’t we steer a tractor. It went to the engineers and in 2005 it won the Agri-marketing product of the year. The main idea behind the EZ-Steer was to offer machine control that was easily moved from vehicle to vehicle without the need for hydraulic connections.”

The next logical step is a sub-inch, Real-time Kinematic (RTK) repeatable Autopilot system. This allows a farmer to plant, fertilize and harvest any row crop with precision. Autopilot is a Trimble trade name for their hydraulically integrated GPS machine control systems.

“Once again depending on the receiver being used, Autopilot performs like the EZ-Steer except it uses hydraulics rather than an EZ-Steer motor,” said Del.

RTK is a technology using a network of GPS units, mobile units, radio frequency and base station that computes instantly to a vehicle by means of gyroscopes and accelerometers inside the navigational controller.

“The advantage of the Autopilot with a dual frequency receiver and high update rates, connected to the vehicle hydraulics is that it can repeat an accuracy of plus or minus one inch on a row, in any field pattern 95 percent of the time, day after day and year after year.

“A critical part of the equation for precision farming is that the implement being pulled is calibrated, too, so it pulls exactly behind the tractor. The exact width of the implement also needs to be known.

“There are degrees of accuracy using GPS and that depends on the type of receiver used. The level of accuracy desired will depend on a producer’s personal needs. We hear a lot of people talking about low cost and high accuracy; including sales people. The two do not go hand in hand and the limited knowledge of the product by consumers and sellers will continue to define the success of the systems being sold.”

Types and accuracy are:

Autonomous: within 5 to 15 meters

DGPS: .2 to 1 meter

XP: 20 centimeters

HP: 10 centimeters

RTK: 1 centimeter (the ultimate in accuracy)

“Currently many new models of tractors are coming out with wiring harnesses that are autopilot ready, you just need to plug and play. We are addressing the huge market of existing tractors that farmers have already committed to and want to use with the new GPS technology,” said Del.

All of the DataLink, L.L.C. GPS technology products can be customer installed with the exception of the Autopilot system. The dealer needs to go through some calibration steps for that system. A hydraulic platform kit is available to make the Autopilot transferable from tractor to tractor. Put a kit in each tractor and the Autopilot system plugs right in.

“Right now in this area, to utilize RTK repeatability, a personal base station with an antenna is necessary. The battery powered base station costs around $16,000 and is portable so it can be used for more than one field. But every time it is moved it needs to be placed back in exactly the same spot to maintain the accuracy. Another drawback is that it operates by line of sight, which can be an issue with natural barriers like trees or hills.”

To overcome those drawbacks, DataLink, L.L.C. has moved forward with a plan to put up RTK towers in the area, thereby enabling any farmer within range of a tower to utilize it rather than buying a base station. These towers are 185-200 feet tall.

There will be a yearly fee for this network service of $1,995. Four areas are already mapped for the towers, two towers are up and one is now operational. (See map for areas to be covered.)

Del has plans in the near future to integrate a weather station at each of his network towers, giving producers access to exact weather such as temperature, wind velocity and precipitation.

“DataLink is also a test company for Trimble. We do beta testing on Trimble products which is the first version of a product before it goes to market. We use the product and logs errors, those are then sent via e-mail to Trimble. Engineers analyze the information and make corrections and e-mail it back and we input into the navigational controller,” said Del.

“Some of the benefits of the Autopilot system are labor issues, there is a lack of experienced operators and this system can be operated by anyone and works equally well in the daylight or dark. One of our customers runs three, eight-hour shifts using the system. It also eliminates the need for row markers which can generate an $8,000 to $10,000 savings on markers. Additionally there are less skips and overlaps and less driver fatigue.

“A GPS EZ-map software system can vastly enhance a farming operation too,” Del said. “This allows a farmer to monitor his operation in layers. Each layer will represent the information you want to gather such as areas and locations for weeds, pests, tile lines and other features; sampling or planting grid patterns; record varieties, where planted and at what population; amount and types of fertilizers applied; record moisture content and yield of a crop; all of these factors can be gathered in any given specific spot. This gives a precision ag record to monitor input and outputs. I would recommend that a producer begin with this system and use for two to three years. That would give him a base for comparison. He could monitor his current practices and see when changes are needed. Farming is an annual thing so on a rotation for instance it may take nine years to get good corn data.

“GPS is such an evolutionary thing, I don’t know it all, it is very interesting and intriguing as there are so many applications. Municipalities could use it for all their utilities; trucking companies for keeping track of their fleets; electrical companies could pinpoint the exact location of every power pole and input information such as pole height, if it carries a transformer, number of wires or whatever was pertinent; hunting, fishing and recreation uses; and cars with electronic maps; the uses of GPS are virtually endless. In the agricultural sector the technology is there to have a driverless tractor, but so far there is no dealer or company that wants that liability.

“The key to getting the correct GPS system for a particular operation is information, information, information.”

Del is available for speaking to the public about GPS and incorporates an informative power point presentation. Check out their Web site at: http://www.gpsfarmandirrigation.com


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