Time For Telematics
The equipment majors are committed to bringing this technology to precision agriculture.
September 10, 2008
Whether you call it "the next frontier" or "the next big thing," telemetry is set to revolutionize precision agriculture. Simply defined, it's the transmitting of data via wireless communication links. The idea is to allow in-the-field equipment to transmit and receive data from a home base or another field communication unit.
For several years in the U.S., farm site weather stations and moisture monitors have used telemetry to transmit their data. "It provides users such as growers and co-ops with real-time information on what the weather is doing in a field," says Rich Hilliker, regional sales manager, western region, Trimble. "It's especially helpful in areas with very strange weather patterns."
Telemetry is currently going strong in many parts of Europe. "Look at some of the systems where they're monitoring combines," says Mark Hansen, product marketing manager for advanced technology solutions for North America at AGCO. "They know exactly what the settings are on a particular machine at any given time."
Levels Of Application
Several precision agriculture manufacturers are developing applications for wider U.S. markets, with equipment efficiency as a key driver. "In agriculture you've got this high vehicle population that effectively runs out in remote areas. And they need to run when they need to run — like in springtime, planting, or harvest — at extended hours," says Mike Gomes, OEM accounts manager for Topcon Precision Agriculture.
Guidance system firms envision different levels of telemetry adoption. The first is simple fleet tracking and management, to collect very basic information about where machines are, explains Hansen. Higher-end systems would deliver information and log extensive data on what's going on in a machine at any given time. Gomes sees today's high-functioning cab guidance consoles as natural precursors for telematic use. So your rig becomes "not just a smart machine, but a smart machine that can talk," he says.
Perhaps a dream come true for an applicator would be to have telematic capabilities on all equipment. "It would be great for a TerraGator driver — not just the fleet manager back at the plant — to know where your tenders are ... to know how far away trucks are and when you can expect them," Hansen describes.
Topcon is bringing its expertise from the construction equipment industry to bear on ag applications. In some cases, the company can use the same hardware, but different user interfaces and different remote monitoring, says Gomes. Topcon has beta projects out, extensively testing telemetry products, trying to make sure it's offering solutions that customers want. (Topcon just introduced The Weather Station module for its X20 Guidance System, which measures apparent wind speed and direction, air temperature, and relative humidity — all data for downloading back at the office.)
Hansen says AGCO is deciding, in particular, how to address the "back office" end of the data generated by telematics. "We're exploring if we're going to develop this internally or look to best-in-class providers."
One of AGCO's goals is to make the data collection process much less intrusive in customers' businesses. In a custom application business, for instance, "you can't necessarily expect an employee to remember to log data off a machine at any given time. If you can automate the process for them, I think that will help the business quite a bit," says Hansen. He believes AGCO will have something in production in the next 12 months to 18 months.
Trimble has already brought its telematics knowledge from other industries to bear with the introduction of its new Agriculture Manager asset management system in January. Hilliker says the product combines GPS, machine sensors, and automated wireless communications to allow growers to more efficiently manage and operate large machinery fleets with one system. "It can automatically notify fleet managers via cell phone if key events occur, such as vehicle servicing is required, a sprayer needs refilling, or an ignition is off."
John Deere is at work on a new product to replace its JDLink Machine Messenger service, which had used telematics for five years to provide real-time information from tractors. The service was halted in February when the Federal Communications Commission allowed cellular operators (in this case, Verizon) to turn off analog services. Product Marketing Manager Loann Hausner says the new product — available within two years — will be able to report tractor location, fuel tank level, on/off/working status, current tractor settings, and much more.
Decide For Your Operation
One question dealers and growers will need to ask is if they have the infrastructure to support telemetry. "Cellular and WiFi give the ability to move large amounts of data economically," says Hilliker. "Being able to use existing infrastructure eliminates the expense and hassle of building your own private radio networks," he says.
While cellular technology has come a long way, some rural areas still lack reliable signals. "We're a big old country with lots of gaps, and that's going to be a bit of a challenge in the initial stages of telemetry products," says Hansen.
Manufacturers don't see price as a problem. Trimble's Agriculture Manager costs $695 for hardware, plus a monthly subscription plan, which ranges from $24.95 to $49.95. Amy Wigginton, marketing communications manager, says options to purchase additional services such as two-way messaging (similar to text messaging) are available as well.
AGCO's Hansen envisions "high hundreds to low thousands for a basic system, and a couple thousand, say $2,500, for high end solutions. And it's like any other technology, those values will go down as the numbers go up."