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Satellite technology is taking over

There was a time, long before precision agriculture, satellite technology, and air-conditioned tractor cabs, that farming involved some pretty ad-hoc and rather imprecise guesswork.

Rather than using satellite technology to map out exactly where the tractor should go and where the chemical should be applied, growers would often rely on a combination of guesswork and accumulated experience in the field.

“Older farmers have insisted that the GPS was a stick on the front of the tractor that was used for marking,” AGCO product manager Jeremy Duniam who specialises in guidance systems says.

GPS, or more accurately GNSS for global navigation satellite system, is featured on most tractors of more than 150 horsepower and enables farmers to chart their course with remarkable precision.

“They can steer them within 2cm of where they need the tractor to go so it really reduces the room for human error,” Mr Duniam says.

The GPS system is a fundamental component of precision agriculture, a technology-based approach to growing that maximises yield and output by minimising vagaries.

“We measure it and work out that it is, in fact, 1.9 hectares, which means they have been over-applying chemicals at a rate of 10 per cent.

“They have been doing this for decades sometimes and that overapplication of chemical is expensive.”

While GPS technology is “fully realised” in terms of positioning the tractor in the field, Jeremy can see room for even greater accuracy in the application of chemicals.

“With things like planters and seeders there will be greater control over the exact depth at which the seed is placed in the soil,” he says.

“With sprayers, there will be much greater nozzle control and you will get a lot less overlap.”

Business development manager for GNSS provider SmartNet Aus, Ryan Keenan, also sees a time when chaser bins make better use of the technology

“This technology could be used to improve the positioning of the chaser bin behind the header so that it aligns better to collect the grain,” he says.

“Or perhaps, one day, we can start to run several sprayers in a long line using GNSS.”

With such precise GNSS technology available, surely it is only a matter of time before we see driverless tractors?

Greater automation is certainly at the forefront of many researchers’ minds — both here and overseas.

Earlier this year, an experiment unfolded at the Rice Research Australia farm in southern NSW, near Jerilderie, that has the potential to revolutionise the way farmers work.

The Japanese and Australian researchers were able to demonstrate for the first time a fully robotic tractor controlled entirely by Japan’s satellite system, QZSS, achieving positioning accuracies of about 5cm.

Data from the satellite enabled the tractor to track, turn, and operate as it carried out inter-row tillage and fertiliser applications.

“The new Japanese satellite system can really change and improve precision agriculture,” director of consulting company Precision Agriculture, Tim Neale, says.

The Japanese system is expected to launch eight satellites over the next five years, which will track over Australia in a figure eight.

 “With the European satellite system (Galileo), you can only track it when it’s over our region but the Japanese system is directly above us,” Mr Neale says.

“This will provide excellent coverage for Australian farmers and I can see it helping out areas where coverage may have been more difficult, such as with tree crops.”

Not only is the level of coverage promising, but the Japanese system also transmits corrected signals to 2cm eliminating the need for a base station.

“The robotic trials are in their early days but they are already getting the precision down to the centimetre,” Mr Neale says.

Mr Neale says while there was much hype in the industry surrounding fully automated, or driverless tractors, where there is still some human supervision required, he believed robotics was at the real cutting edge of precision agriculture.

“Driverless tractors have been around for years but insurance companies have a problem with them and they are just too big if something goes wrong,” he says.

“As soon as you scale the problem down, you have fewer problems. If a small robotic tractor ran into a fence it probably wouldn’t run through it.

“So I can see a time in the coming years when there are 10 robotic tractors working in the place of one full-sized tractor.”

Mr Duniam says Fendt had been launched driverless tractors that work alongside a manned tractor, but he was dubious of how quickly they would be taken up.

“Driverless tractors are coming but I still think they are a way off,” he says. “Nothing beats having someone in the cab, especially if there is a snag or a blocked nozzle.”

Mr Keenan says automatic steering is already incredibly popular and is only likely to become more so in the future.

“The driver is still controlling the speed of the vehicle but the GNSS technology is steering the machine in a much straighter line than a human could,” he said.

“So I see a role for semi-autonomous systems that make use of GNSS.”

Mr Keenan is also hopeful of unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) using GNSS to administer chemicals across vast areas.

Whatever turn precision agriculture takes, the role of a GNSS system as psychological ballast in the face of unpredictability will be as vital as ever.

“When you are a farmer there are so many things that you cannot control,” Mr Duniam says. “But GPS is something that gives you a degree of control.”


The global navigation satellite system is a multitude of satellites that send signals to whatever device can “see” them on the ground.

The earth’s atmosphere can interfere with that signal and make it inaccurate by up to a couple of metres, which is fine if you’re trying to find a street address in your car, but no good for precision farming.

So a CORS network (continuously operating reference stations) was set up to send a corrected signal to nearby users that’s accurate to within a couple of centimetres. To get that corrected signal, a user must pay a regular subscription fee.

More accurate Japanese satellites may eliminate the need for CORS-corrected signals.

(Source – http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/machine/crop-gear/satellite-technology-taking-over/news-story/3c950bb798fed04767c2245f990d192d)

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