Leica: Moving The Needle

Leica GeoSystems raised a lot of eyebrows back in 2007 when it released the mojoRTK guidance system. Long known worldwide as a leader in precision measurement technology for markets outside ag, its initial entry into the U.S. agriculture market was loaded with capabilities. In fact, mojoRTK proved to be ahead of its time for most end users, built to take advantage of tractors and equipment compatibility for which U.S. equipment was not quite ready.

Harlan Little joined the company earlier this year to guide it through a phase that could be described as Leica 2.0 — finding a place for the company’s technology in the U.S. market, and setting a course forward that will make its products more accessible and more attractive to the U.S. ag market. Little discussed Leica’s challenges and opportunities with CropLife® magazine.

Q. Talk about Leica’s philosophy upon entering the U.S. market.

Leica is a large, well financed company that certainly understands GPS. We have a world-wide business supplying products for positioning, surveying, land leveling and machine control, but we have not had much exposure to the ag market, particularly in the United States. In Australia and Europe, Leica is better known in agriculture.

I think Leica caught everyone’s attention when it broke out with a lower-cost steering system using the concept that all tractors will be automatic-steering ready in the near future. The game-changer will eventually come when manufacturers have steering-ready tractors, which will make adoption easier and more cost effective. Leica has been on the leading edge relative to where things are going with the technology, but we have not invested time and energy on what we feel will ultimately go away — the hydraulic kit. Our aim is to make sure the tractors that are automatic steering-ready will be able to reliably plug in and steer equipment, and make it available at a price that an operator can justify. Taking this approach has allowed us to really focus, but it has also hampered us a little because it has restricted where we can penetrate the marketplace.

Q. How are things changing now and in the future?

The original way we were structured was really an Internet business model, where someone could buy the system online, plug it into their steering-ready tractor and be ready to go. The marketplace was not ready for that approach — we realized that we needed to build a dealership-distribution model and have knowledgeable people who are available to answer questions and sell the products. While we have a product designed to be plug and play, selling without a local dealer goes against the norm of what is expected with technology equipment.

We are in the midst of expanding our sales force and finding dealerships interested in taking on Leica products. We have a number of key dealers out there, but we need more coverage. Farther into the future, once everybody has ISO CAN in place, we will be ready to plug and play and steer the tractor. So when ISO CAN becomes standard equipment, I think that will drive interest in our control products.

Q. Leica has been working a lot with CORS RTK networks – how it this coming along?

While at AGCO, I was working on telemetry, and now it is kind of fun to be on the side of the whole thing … Leica has been developing CORS (continuously operating reference station) networks for a couple of years, and while the technology hasn’t hit its maximum potential as a tracking and communications system yet, the connections are all there and the infrastructure is in place to develop a working system.

Leica is very much involved in working with state departments of transportation and some non-ag situations putting infrastructure in place that also will be able to be leveraged in the ag market. The use of existing RTK networks in a true network situation instead of a tower sending the signal that allows the user to move anywhere in the network and have coverage. From that standpoint and we are doing that, and while we may not have as broad a line of product offerings as others, what we do have definitely works.

Leica is a global leader in advancing reference network technology, and is working with state departments of transportation to install this type of infrastructure. While ag isn’t driving these installations, the ag market will certainly be able to leverage these investments. When using a signal from a true RTK network (as opposed to a single tower or a series of un-networked towers), the user can move anywhere in that network and have coverage. In fact, Leica has just announced its new SmartNet product that is an RTK network solution provided via cellular communication.

Q. Will Leica be looking to establish any development agreements or partnerships in the future?

In today’s world, our growth is really a double strategy. We have the brand name out there, but we are interested in partnering. I definitely think that instead of reinventing the wheel, we will look at how we can tie our technology into someone else’s, make both partners’ products better and really create some synergies. We see the maturation of the technology market and I think it only makes sense to try to do that.

Of course, we will still keep a keen eye on keeping a competitive edge — there has to be some give and take.

Q. Do you see any hidden challenges for technology in the years ahead?

The growth of RTK networks of all colors and shapes are rapidly filling in the areas that need access, but the issue I fear we may run into is data blackouts. More and more data is being processed via the cell system, so if the infrastructure does not keep up with the demand for wireless data transfer, we could see data blackouts occurring.

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