If growers and dealers — yea, the world — ever needed automatic steering, it’s now. An exaggeration? Maybe, but the higher efficiencies the technology is delivering each season are helping offset the price of other crop inputs, most notably fuel and fertilizer.
Applicators continue to recognize the benefits of this equipment as steering manufacturers report sales figures that range from steady to “taking off.”
“Retail sales of Outback Guidance steering products have been outstanding through the first four months of 2011, far outpacing 2010 results to date,” says Jeff Farrar, director of marketing for agriculture with Hemisphere GPS. At Raven Industries, the higher end steering systems in particular have become increasingly popular, says Ryan Molitor, marketing supervisor. “This is because RTK correction signals are more widely available to customers,” he explains.
And Tim Stuenkel, market development specialist with TeeJet Technologies, says “there is strong interest and excellent growth opportunities for these products in a number of international markets” as well.
Reduced fuel costs is just one benefit that companies promise to drivers. Lori Costello, marketing communications manager with Ag Leader, says GPS steering allows users to increase their field speed, start work earlier, run later into the evening, and drive longer with less fatigue.
Farrar points out that with 2011 corn acreage projected to be up about 4.5% over 2010 — and with the wet and later-than-normal planting experiences so far — GPS steering systems will allow more acres to be planted more accurately and with less stress. Molitor says the equipment is also known for helping “reduce skips and overlaps, which really helps input costs.”
In fact, investing in new technologies like autosteer can provide immediate and noticeable gains in field efficiency and operator productivity, both of which will improve the grower’s bottom line, says Stuenkel.
Erik Ehn, Trimble product manager, quantifies the gains, pegging savings on fertilizer and chemicals at 10% or more. “Accurate automated steering also opens the door to even greater efficiencies, with practices such as strip tillage and variable-rate application, providing very rapid return on an investment in precision ag equipment,” he adds.
GPS steering has been around for several seasons now, but manufacturers continue to improve their offerings. Raven Industries has added the Cruizer II RTK to its product line-up, giving the company the “simplest to use RTK solution as well as the most cost efficient,” says Molitor. “Customers can realize all the benefits of RTK without having the high dollar investment.” Raven’s new Slingshot RTK delivers correction signals to steering systems through the cell phone networks in an area, “so we’ve eliminated any line of sight issues a typical RTK radio steering system runs into,” Molitor explains.
Just in February, Ag Leader added the ability to control the OnTrac Assisted Steering system with its INTEGRA display — and added OmniSTAR HP/XP and VBS capabilities to its GPS 2500.
On March 1, Leica Geosystems introduced its new line of Steer Direct Hydraulic products. “We have a kit that includes a PWM hydraulic block, flow meter, and steer controller all mounted on a compact bracket,” describes Harlan Little, Leica Geosystems ag business manager – NAFTA. “This new idea allows a user to upgrade a previously non-steer ready tractor easily.” Leica will be producing kits specific to different models, releasing them throughout 2011.
The new Leica mojo3D 7-inch color touch screen allows the user to do manual steering or to connect it to a Leica Quick Steer for an electric steering option. “The mojo3D can also be connected to a Leica mojRTK console for very accurate RTK steering,” says Little. And in yet another development, this spring the company added a new steering pattern marketed as Ultimate Curve Guidance which allows the user to project future passes in the field based on the coverage from previous passes.
TeeJet is now shipping its new Matrix Pro bright color touch screen display, which Stuenkel says is one of the most intuitive and easy to operate guidance/autosteer systems available. He says the product’s RealView guidance over video display mode, which allows the operator to view guidance information overlaid on a live image of the field ahead, is unique and innovative. For this season, TeeJet has added the ability to store and retrieve multiple guidelines, internal boundary support, A+Azimuth guideline creation, NextRow guidance mode, and two-way data transfer.
For 2011, Outback Guidance introduced the eDriveVSi electric steering wheel, ideal for decimeter performance requirements. Hemisphere GPS also debuted the eTurns feature for the Outback eDriveX, the company’s top-of-the-line hydraulic and steer by wire interface and offers centimeter performance. eTurns is the first aftermarket autoturn offering on the market, says Farrar.
All of Outback’s autosteer systems (including the eDriveTC steering interface for decimeter accuracy) are sold with vehicle-specific kits, making for quick and easy installation.
Topcon reports the company has refined its System 150 display for improved viewing and released the new System 350 with X30 console for advanced rate control.
John Deere has added two new features to its Active Implement Guidance product: compatibility of curves and circle tracking modes; and electronic receiver offset.
Several manufacturers are taking GPS steering even further into the grower market, tailoring systems for a variety of tractors and their tasks.
Ag Leader equipment now supports the 2011 John Deere 8R Series tractor’s steering over CAN Bus. Trimble Autopilot can now also be used to guide/steer implements behind the tractor. The Trimble TrueGuide passive guidance system that controls the implement can now be used in conjunction with front wheel assist as well as 4WD articulated tractors.
Raven is offering kits for steer-ready tractors, which allows the customer to utilize equipment from the factory and “which really simplifies the installation,” says Molitor.
Users of GPS steering appreciate different features in systems.
Installation. Just getting equipment on a rig can be a technical challenge, but companies are making the job easier. Kevin Cobb, director of agriculture product management, says that Topcon’s System 150 and AES-25 electric steering can be up and running in two hours or less, with the help of a Topcon dealer. Ag Leader’s Costello says the Ag Leader ParaDyme Automated Steering System, which features a unique dual-antenna design, is easy to move from vehicle to vehicle, as drivers simply move the one-piece roof array.
Easy-to-use. Many manufacturers aim to create an “intuitive” user interface. “Our customers like the interface with their Raven field computer, and one controller in the cab doing everything,” says Molitor. “The portability and simplicity of use are what helps make Raven field computers popular. We carry that simplicity over to our steering systems, simple to install, simple to set up, and most importantly, simple to operate.”
In another example, Cobb says drivers are attracted by the simplicity of the graphical user interface on Topcon’s advanced X30 console — as well as the stability and reliable daily performance of its positioning and auto-steering technology.
Remote trouble-shooting. This new feature can save lots of time in the field. Leica pioneered the technology with its Virtual Wrench connection, and today the feature on mojo3D allows dealer support staff to wirelessly connect to the unit and help a driver perform any number of calibration and diagnostic functions, explains Cobb.
With the remote diagnostics capability of Ag Leader’s ParaDyme, operators can request help through the INTEGRA or EDGE display. Dealer service technicians then make adjustments to the system remotely.
Upgradeability. With the recent rate of advances in the precision ag arena, manufacturers are working to make updates easier. Cobb notes that Topcon offers “fully upgradeable accuracy at a competitive price, while other systems are not upgradeable without buying new hardware. New users can start up with basic systems and upgrade as their needs change,” he says.
Trimble’s Ehn says that the company’s equipment is “colorblind,” which means it can be installed in any tractor, plus it’s also “future—proof,” which means it’s designed to be upgradeable as a user’s needs grow or as technology improves.