GPS Auto Steer: Innovating in a Mature Market

In the world of Big IRON, GPS auto steer has closely mirrored the evolutionary path of consumer GPS Navigation systems in the automotive industry, making the jump from premium aftermarket add-on product to a solution that is mostly OEM standard equipment.

“Auto steer is no longer thought of as an option,” says Harlan Little, Product Manager, Topcon Positioning Systems. “Growers and, to an increasing degree, custom applicators expect it to be included as a standard feature.”

Little adds that increasingly more and more folks are bypassing standard GPS correction signals for the ability to drill down machine paths to the sub-inch accurate level, which gives greater repeatability for such tasks as side-dressing and UAN knifing, where repeatability is key. “RTK usage from planting to harvest allows both the grower and custom operators to all gain the efficiency and ease of use that automatic steering offers,” he says.

Therefore, just as ag service providers added Garmin or other consumer-focused GPS units to their truck fleets in the early 2000s so salespeople could get to their sales calls more efficiently, dealers have adopted GPS and the growing RTK-based auto steer products at greater rates than perhaps any other technology segment. Our latest 2017 CropLife®/Purdue precision dealer services survey shows ag retailer adoption of GPS auto steer technologies currently hovering around the 78% mark (among 209 respondents), which Purdue’s Bruce Erickson says points to the overall guidance product segment achieving “mature market” status.

What exactly does that mean? According to the trusty Internet, a market is considered “mature” when it reaches a state of equilibrium. And a market is considered to be in a state of equilibrium when there is an absence of significant growth, or a lack of innovation.

TMX-2050-In-Cab-Display-Launch-Run-Screen
TMX 2050 In-Cab Display Launch Run Screen.

Hmmmm … that sounds kind of bad, doesn’t it?

Still, even as the GPS auto steer segment nears its inevitable equilibrium (one could argue tablets and smartphones have long ago reached that phase of product evolution), there are some interesting new, as well as some slightly new aftermarket solutions still out there for someone looking to add guided steering to a machine. Perhaps it’s a machine that was built prior to the ISOBUS standard or maybe it’s an old tractor with steering technology that is so old and outdated that the only option that makes sense is one of those aftermarket, stand-alone snap-on auto steer systems?

Speaking of which, last year we discovered Case IH’s ElectriSteer assisted steering product at the 2016 Commodity Classic. ElectriSteer is a backwards-compatible (will work with past models of Case equipment) electric drive motor that snaps onto any Case IH (or John Deere and New Holland) steering wheel and connects through the AFS Pro 700 display to deliver sub-foot accurate guidance lines. For me, it’s not the technology behind ElectriSteer that makes it sexy – much of that technology has existed for years. It’s the flexibility and simplicity, and open compatibility, that makes something like ElectriSteer so intriguing.

Following right on the heels of ElectriSteer was Topcon’s own high-torque electric steering system, the AES-35, which the company launched at the end of the 2016 growing season. Topcon says AES-35 is designed to offer hydraulic performance with electric convenience, to produce accurate electric steering for a wide range of vehicles.

Topcon-GPS-factory-exterior
Topcon GPS factory.

“Designed for non-steer-ready and other specialty vehicles, the AES-35 is a ruggedized, weatherproof system capable of installation on in-cab and, more importantly, open-platform or non-cab environments,” said Nicola Finardi, Topcon Agriculture Lead for Innovation and Product Development. “And the AES-35’s high-torque electric motor can operate in both forward and reverse to produce auto steering at all levels of accuracy when used with the Topcon AGI-4 GNSS receiver/steering controller.”

AES-35 can also pull in RTK networks for corrections, giving users auto steer capabilities down to sub-2 centimeter accuracy.

Other New-ish Options

Back in May, Tersus GNSS, a new Chinese guidance solution manufacturing company, announced the launch of its farm-focused auto steer system, AG960.

The full system being comprised of a GNSS antenna, vehicle display panel, high-precision positioning receiver, hydraulic valve that attaches to the steering wheel, and steering sensor, the system claims RTK accuracy down to two centimeters.

Henry Peng, Application Consul­tant within Tersus’ Precision Agri­culture Division, said: “Taking one step beyond centimeter-level operation accuracy, the Tersus AG960 applies advanced RTK positioning in the autopilot controller, and we believe the solution will bring about a paradigm shift in the way that farming vehicles work, and will improve their operational quality and productivity.”

If you hadn’t heard of Tersus before reading this article, you’re probably not alone. The company had only ever distributed product in mainland China before announcing plans for an ambitious worldwide roll out in 2017.

“We plan to launch a series of solutions that meet the varied requirements of different farming machines,” said Xiaohua Wen, Founder and CEO of Tersus. “The AG960 has first been commercially deployed in China, and will be further rolled out in other regions around the world, where it will help modern farmers go hassle-free in their daily work and produce more with less.”

Meanwhile, Case IH turned a lot of heads in 2016 when it debuted its autonomous tractor on the summer show circuit. But in the way of guidance solutions, the Wisconsin-based equipment giant also introduced AccuTurn automated headland-turning technology this winter for the 2017 growing season.

Leo Bose, who was practically attached at the hip to the automated tractor display all summer, took some time off from talking about robot tractors to shed some light on AccuTurn’s capabilities.

“Whether navigating expansive open spaces or smaller, irregular fields, AccuTurn automatically controls the entire headland-turning process with industry-leading path-planning logic,” said Leo Bose, Case IH AFS marketing manager, in a press release from Case-IH. “AccuTurn will give operators positive results throughout the crop production cycle,” Bose said. “This is especially true as planting or seeding operations set the field up for agronomically correct layouts that can be precisely followed by side dressing, spraying, and harvesting for improved efficiencies and higher yield potential.”

Bose added that, not merely just for corn and soybean operations, small-grain operations also can benefit from the automated-turning technology. This includes pulling multiple implements, such as tow-behind air carts and seeders, for planting wheat, barley, or sorghum.

“It all comes back to reduced operator strain, especially when pulling increasingly larger and longer implements,” he added. “Without the need to manually steer a tractor and potentially multiple implements, operators will be more alert to perform other end-of-row functions.”

Case IH also launched a new GPS receiver back in February at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, KY. The new AccuStar receiver pairs with the aforementioned ElectriSteer while also being available to third-party displays and applications, according to the company, and it can also be deployed in stand-alone GPS applications.

“Together, AccuStar and ElectriSteer provide a quick, easy, and affordable system that allows producers to realize the benefits of autoguidance on all their equipment. This allows for integration into their existing equipment without autoguidance capabilities,” Bose said. “Equipped with a GPS-based auto-steer system, operators can take advantage of RTK corrections for applications that require the highest levels of precision, such as strip-till or bedding.”

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