Bringing the GNSS Age to Agriculture
One of the oldest human activities-farming-has become the beneficiary of one of the world's most recent utilities, GNSS-aided positioning, navigation, and guidance.
Indeed, pioneers in the agricultural industry began adopting the new technology nearly two decades ago, exploiting differential GPS methods well before the elimination of Selective Availability allowed civil signals to provide full accuracy to users. Early uses included monitoring yields during harvest, soil sampling, and variable-rate applications of fertilizer and pesticides.
Today, centimetre-level GNSS positioning using real-time kinematic (RTK) techniques and digital maps enable farmers to implement automated guidance of field equipment and pinpoint applications of chemicals to reduce the cost of labor, equipment, and fuel in the competitive agricultural marketplace.
As a long-time innovator in precise positioning, NovAtel brings not just technical but also human resources to bear on the challenges of its customers. Among the company's strategic business partners in this sector is the Brazilian agricultural equipment manufacturer Stara S/A, whose customers produce such commodities as soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton.
As a true original equipment manufacturer (OEM), NovAtel provides board-level receivers that Stara engineers integrate into the Brazilian company's machinery. This partnership highlights NovAtel's depth of experience in the agriculture business sector, the flexibility of its solutions, and the supplier's willingness to align closely with customers over the entire cycle of design and production.
The partnership between NovAtel and Stara is the result of years of relationship-building. Founded more than 50 years ago, Stara needed a superior GNSS solution to compete successfully in the increasingly tech-driven international agricultural industry. Stara found the performance it required in NovAtel's GNSS product line, backed by the Canadian firm's engineering support for its customers' product development efforts.
Jack Seitz is NovAtel's agricultural business development manager for the Americas, and heads up an ongoing partnership with Stara. “We began the relationship five years ago,” he recalls, “and continue to collaborate successfully to develop leading-edge GNSS solutions that support Stara's global business strategy.”
Weekly technical interaction with its customer's development team, annual training, and close assistance with integration of the OEM manufacturer's latest products ensure product integration success for today's leading agricultural companies.
Guilherme Oliveira, project leader for GNSS Applications at Stara, confirms the benefits of a strong supportive partnership. “Any questions during the integration of NovAtel technologies into Stara products are answered very quickly, and this is very important when we have deeply integrated solutions,” Oliveira says. “This point is also related to [Novatel's] very good quality and updated technology, and a product with a very low rate of issues during production-or for our end customer.”
By integrating NovAtel receiver technology directly into their equipment, Stara gets GNSS-enabled feature sets that gives it confidence that competitors do not have an advantage in positioning technology.
A crucial differentiator is NovAtel's business model of not competing with its customers.
“We have a lot of knowledge and value to share here,” says Seitz. “We maintain a philosophy of being an OEM partner only. We do not set up any other type of distribution that could compete with our customers in the field. We are the only agricultural GNSS company that does this. Stara will never have to compete with NovAtel in their market. ”
Sustained and flexible technical support extends from product design and integration through to the manufacturing line and into the marketplace.
Consequently, the partnership between the GNSS OEM and ag equipment manufacturer spans product inception to go-to-market date and on through the market-driven product-refresh cycle
“We have a vision and a plan for the future to ensure that we with our customers' product development process many years in advance,” says Seitz.
In the case of Stara, NovAtel has been able to coordinate with Stara's equipment manufacturing cycle so that the latest technology is deployed over a timeline consistent with Stara's equipment upgrades and rollouts.
Oliveira says that this model “brings very nice, customized, and quick solutions to our market.” Because Stara has its own electronics developments inside the company, Stara and NovAtel can coordinate efforts at the engineering and application level to bring solutions “tailored to the scenario found in each [Stara customer'] market or even each [Stara] customer and application, instead of offering general solutions to the market,” Oliveira adds.
One example is Stara's Topper 4500 controller for precision farming, which features a large color screen with 3D graphics processing and display, digital maps, and real-time monitoring of application rates. The system's controls are designed by Stara engineers and support a wide range of uses, including variable-rate seed planting and fertilizer applications, yield monitoring, and automated precision guidance. The Topper 4500 “is constantly updated with the new GNSS technologies designed by NovAtel,” Oliveira says.
NovAtel supports these efforts with product reliability rates three times the industry average, which is very important to the agriculture market.
The company has developed innovative navigation technology solutions such as the early integration of GLONASS in agriculture-specific GNSS receivers and dual-frequency GLIDE, a firmware solution that is of particular importance for Stara.
Stara is based in NÃ£o-Me-Toque, in the Rio Grande do Sul state of Brazil, a region that experiences high levels of ionospheric activity. These atmospherics can affect the propagation of GNSS satellite signals and, therefore, the positioning accuracy of receivers in Stara's farm equipment product line.
NovAtel's GLIDE firmware-with options for GPS or GPS+GLONASS operation-combines GNSS code and phase data to produce a positioning solution well suited for applications like farm-equipment guidance, where pass-to-pass repeatability, typically over 15-minute intervals, is crucial. Dual-frequency GLIDE smoothes the positioning information received by a Stara product while mitigating the effects of ionospheric disturbances.
Seitz and Oliveira believe that the advantages to using GNSS technology in agribusiness today are game-changing and robust, and that they will develop further over time.
“I see more automation in machine control and more automation in data movement in the future,” Seitz says. “This is driven by the need for efficiency at the primary producer, [farmer] level”.
These efficiencies include the substantial reductions in the use of expensive fuel, seeds, and fertilizer that result from using precision techniques to monitor fields and automate the steering of farming equipment. Environmental impacts arising from over-application of pesticides also decrease with implementation of precision agricultural technology through the reduction of these inputs.
Oliveira observes that GNSS has a history of being used in agriculture for auto-steering, but now it is being used with more robustness and precision. This is important for the farm tasks that there are nowadays-guidance, section control-and also those ahead, he says. “More use of real-time sensors, telemetry, and autonomous systems are coming, and they rely on very good quality GNSS solutions.”
However, rates of adoption of precision agricultural technology in general, and GNSS-enabled precision agricultural technology in particular, remain surprisingly low-even in the United States-considering the potential benefits. According to a 2011 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study that analyzes rates of adoption over the 10 preceding years, use of GNSS technology remains below 25 percent on all planted acreage in the United States.
One of the most significant barriers to adoption has to do with the complexity of the technology, the difficulty of explaining to farmers how the equipment works, and the material benefits investment in GNSS-enabled farming equipment will bring.
From another perspective, however, that could mean a large, untapped market remains for precision ag products.
Oliveira and Seitz believe that precision farming is becoming less scale-dependent as the price of the technology has dropped to the point where the return on investment (ROI) for even small operations can justify the cost.
Today Stara has precision farming technologies and machines that can fit to any size of farm or customer, Oliveira says. The company offers products for the small 100-hectare (250-acre) farmer-for example, a small, variable rate Twister 1500 APS double-disc hydraulic spreader, with Topper 4500 for pass-to-pass GNSS correction-and also for the big 40,000-hectare farmer, such as Hercules 5.0 self-propelled seed spreaders with nitrogen (N) sensors, autosteering, and RTK corrections for traffic control.
The long-standing relationship with Stara has seen successive generations of NovAtel technology incorporated into the Brazilian company's products. For example, The Topper 4500 originally used the NovAtel OEMV-1G GNSS receiver and evolved to the OEM615 GNSS receiver with dual-frequency GLIDE technology. With real-time nitrogen sensing and variable-rate application, a farmer can produce yield increases from five to eight percent compared with normal manual-rate controllers, he says, which “makes the investment pay by itself in just one harvest, for example, if he seeds around 500 hectares of corn.”
Having started out in agriculture himself, Seitz observes that farmers are “fiercely independent agribusinessmen. They operate a highly capital-intensive business with razor-thin margins.
'They have no room for error and need to use technology wherever they can to improve efficiency and their bottom line,” he adds. “I think this exists for farmers all around the world”.
Drawing from his personal experience, Seitz says that, “In the highly technical world of precision agriculture it helps to understand how we need to take something so technical and turn it into something that is simple and effective to use at the farmer level. It is a very complex problem and not easy to understand without experience at all levels in the business.”
NovAtel's depth of experience and knowledge in agriculture and its ability to partner closely with customers over the long-term design and production cycle help bridge the gap between leading-edge GNSS technology and everyday agribusiness needs.