CropLife Technology 2011 Year In Review: Precision Progress

The technology year 2011 in agriculture provided a number of interesting story lines, from the politics of GPS to the proliferation of mobile technology to the genuine proof of concept of unmanned autonomous equipment. We also saw a growing trend towards collaboration and cooperation amongst fierce competitors, providing hope that greater equipment and software compatibility will lead to more rapid and wider adoption of efficiency and agronomy-improving technology.

It was an excellent year for innovation and progress in ag technology, punctuated by what we consider the most significant stories from the 2011 season.

GPS Vs. Lightsquared

In its relatively brief history, precision agriculture has never really had a broad political cause to fight for in the Beltway. That is, until this year when technology company Lightsquared announced that the FCC had given it permission to begin a pilot deployment of its broadband Internet solution. To the government, it looked like a silver bullet solution to establishing broadband access coast to coast.

But there was a hitch. The Lightsquared signal as planned would significantly compromise the existing GPS signal, rendering it virtually useless. The GPS industry, including a laundry list of companies in the agriculture market, conducted three months of testing to get to the bottom of the issue. It was determined by their technical people that under no circumstances could the Lightsquared signal broadcast in its assigned spectrum without affecting GPS. Even a late move by Lightsquared to reduce the spectrum it would broadcast on continued to compromise the GPS signal, most especially the high accuracy GPS that agriculture relies on.

At this stage, it is uncertain how the FCC will rule, but agriculture has had its say. The Agricultural Retailers Association was able to weigh in on behalf of all ag dealerships through the testimony of Rick Greene, precision manager at MFA Inc., and his testimony at a hearing conducted by the House Small Business Committee.

Continuing Collaboration

As technology continues to mature in agriculture, there appears to be a growing trend toward competing companies working more closely together to bring better solutions to retailers and growers. This trend was punctuated at the 2011 InfoAg Conference in July, which drew more than 700 attendees and had a decidedly more collaborative tone than past meetings.

Where this conference had often featured major new technology releases from the big companies, much of the discussion at the 2011 event was about offering ways that technology could “talk” to each other, share data, and make the end user more productive (such as Slingshot API, shown on the previous page). Overall, manufacturers seemed to be embracing their strengths and reaching out to other companies to broaden and improve the solutions they bring to agriculture.

Another example was the formation of a Precision Agriculture committee within AgGateway, the industry organization that is facilitating the creation of a broad range of data standards in agriculture. Broad participation in this committee will hopefully result in the establishment of standards that make it much easier to exchange data and develop prescription recommendations — and increase the adoption of agriculture technology by more retailers and growers.

Kinze’s Autonomy Project

One of the biggest surprises was the unveiling of an unmanned, autonomous tractor technology by Kinze Manufacturing. Kinze collaborated with East Coast company Jaybridge Robotics on a proof-of-concept project to demonstrate how autonomous tractor technology could be made to work.

“This is not a remote control process, this is total autonomy,” said Luc van Herle, global sales manager for Kinze, when we caught up with him at the Farm Progress Show in September. “Your input field boundaries, account for water and obstacles, load it into the tractor and planter and let it go.” In demonstrations, van Herle noted that it takes a few minutes to actually get moving. “It’s thinking. It’s creating a map and a plan for the best way to plant the particular field,” he explains. It does it by itself, as if an operator is there, lifting up the planter, making the turns, and heading back down to plant the next row.

The difficult task of scaling the technology so that it’s affordable for a grower is the next step and that could take a number of years, but it was an impressive demonstration that created big waves in the ag technology world.

2011 also witnessed a number of significant strategic moves among ag technology companies. Some of the most significant include the following:

Trimble Enhances GNSS Offerings

In March, Trimble acquired OmniSTAR’s land based Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signal corrections business from Fugro N.V. At the time, Patricia Boothe, general manager of Trimble’s Positioning Services division, explained that “with the addition of the OmniSTAR services and our strong relationship with Fugro, we will offer a full range of high-precision positioning capabilities which now includes satellite-delivered corrections.”

Trimble made good on the promise with the July release of CenterPoint RTX, a new GNSS offering that offers “a fully-converged position in less than one minute at startup within the five central U.S. Corn Belt states from Nebraska to Illinois.” According to Trimble. “For the area outside of the five U.S. states, the Cen­terPoint RTX correction service provides the same 4-centimeter (1.5-inch) repeatable accuracy, but end-users will experience additional convergence time to reach full accuracy.”

Deere Embraces Integration

John Deere announced a plan in March to bring together its current and future wireless technology solutions under a new brand called FarmSight, with a goal of providing an “integrated and comprehensive vision” for meeting the needs of the increasingly complex growing operation. The FarmSight vision serves to focus current and future Deere offerings under a single umbrella, including aspects of its JDLink telematics solution, Ag Logic asset and fleet management solution and Apex desktop software.

Topcon Makes Moves

The release of Topcon’s X-30 control console back in January created a lot of buzz in agriculture for its iPad-like touch screen operation and impressive capabilities, further deepening its commitment to bringing improved technology to agriculture. Then in the summer it announced that it had acquired SGIS software from its key equipment partner AGCO, providing an opportunity for Topcon to gain a foothold in the GIS software business.

So will GPS integrity be spared? What new products will come to market? What surprises lie in store for retailers in 2012? Stay tuned … with an upbeat farm economy and a heightened sense of collaboration among technology companies, anything is possible.

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