MicroElect takes positioning into the Andes Mountains

The Andes Mountains of South America present some  of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring natural landscapes, as anyone who has seen them can attest. But this vast and unbroken chain of jagged peaks also forms a barrier. During the long winter months, high snowbound roads and hard-to-reach mountain passes make getting from one place to another difficult and sometimes dangerous. Even the vehicles and machinery used to keep these routes open need help to navigate and steer when snowdrifts make underlying roadways difficult to follow.
“Argentina has a very large snow-covered area,” said German Spagnoli, owner and project manager of the MicroElect company. “This includes busy roads and border crossings within the Andes Mountains. The conditions can vary depending on the year, and that is why the maintenance authorities have to be prepared with a lot of knowledge and special equipment to clear the roads as quickly and as safely as possible. And that's where our system for guiding snowplows becomes useful.”

Founded on Farming

MicroElect is a small company in Argentina that established itself as a developer of GNSSbased technologies for agricultural systems, mainly installed in tractors, combines and self-propelled sprayers. Among the popular and successful products developed by MicroElect are auto-steering systems and control systems used to deliver fertilizers and carry out other agricultural tasks.

Modern farmers need to be able to perform tasks with a high level of precision; that is, to seed, fertilize and spray their fields in a variable and precise way based on specific field
conditions. MicroElect GNSS-based systems allow farmers to maximize their yields while conserving materials and resources, with easy-to-use machine interfaces, controls and a monitor screen showing location, route and other key information.

When it came to choosing a GNSS component supplier, Spagnoli said, “All of our references pointed to NovAtel. Our relationship started in 2006, when we introduced to the market our first GPS-based guidance system for agricultural purposes. We developed the hardware and the software, and we needed a high-quality GPS receiver to complement our product.

“Today, we use everything from single-frequency autonomous GPS to high-precision [Real-Time Kinematic] RTK systems, depending on the specific application. The components supplied by NovAtel are mainly high-precision GNSS receivers. These components are all of excellent quality, but the company also has a lot of people working in specific areas that are there to answer when you need support.”

Alex Ballarotti is a NovAtel Sales Manager based in Londrina, Brazil. He works directly with MicroElect, supplying the company with NovAtel smart antennas and RTK systems. “MicroElect has been a great customer for us for a long time,” Ballarotti said, “starting with L1-only GNSS cards more than 10 years ago. Later they became the first customer in Latin America to use our new SMART7™ antenna. These and other NovAtel components are still used in the auto-steering systems they develop today.

“The GNSS module inside the SMART7 antenna provides all the positioning needed for a machine to work, no matter where it is located on the globe,” Ballarotti said. “The NovAtel module will send the most precise coordinates in the form of raw data. The user, like MicroElect, can then read, process, interpret and use this data towards their own applications for their own end-customers.”

While MicroElect has been quite successful as a supplier of agricultural systems, it has also shown the ability to develop customized solutions, adapting its technologies to confront completely new applications. “A few years ago,” Spagnoli said, “the company decided to branch out. We opened our development activities to other areas, one of which was a system that is now being used to steer the heavy trucks used for snow plowing in the Andes Mountains.”

Andes High

The Andes are the world’s longest mountain range, running along the entire western part of the continent of South America, roughly parallel to the Pacific coast. It is the second-highest mountain range, next to the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet. Steep, dizzying roads bend like wide slalom runs up and down mountainsides, often without safety barriers, and are used by heavy trucks as well as smaller vehicles and even tourist coaches. Though dangerous, these important roads link local communities year-round and ensure that cross-border traffic and trade remain viable.

MicroElect has developed and is delivering a GNSS-based system that helps guide large snowplows that are critical to keeping mountain roads open and safe during the harsh Andean winters. “The client is Vialidad Nacional, which is the national agency commissioned to carry out route maintenance in Argentina,” Spagnoli said. “They essentially needed a truck that has the ability to sweep snow, apply salt on the road, and drive the truck on the road. In the end, it is not so different from a tractor, which must steer very precisely, while spraying and applying fertilizer and such things, at specific moments. Our system is capable of doing all of these operations. We have it all in one package.”

By all accounts, Vialidad Nacional is very happy with the system. The snowplows are running and the roads are safe and open.

Correction Certainty

“For the snowplow application, the GNSS module is a critical part in the system,” Spagnoli said, “because on many occasions during the work the driver cannot see the road or signs, so they have to rely on the monitor screen to follow the road, which in many cases is at the edge of a precipice. So the location, navigation and guidance systems must be accurate and reliable.”

Ballarotti said, “In addition to our NovAtel SMART antenna model SMART7, the MicroElect snowplows are benefiting from the TerraStar-L™ correction service. Most of us already know there are a number of factors that can affect the accuracy of a GNSS system. We can have multipath, ionospheric interference, clock errors and others. Without any correction service, the best accuracy we currently see is about sub-metric, but our customers need centimeter-level accuracy, and it needs to be repeatable, meaning they need to be able to go back to the same point in the future and match it. So TerraStar can mitigate these errors and provide up to 2.5-centimeter (RMS) accuracy, using the TerraStar-C PRO service. In the case of MicroElect, they use TerraStar-L, which has 15-centimeter pass-to-pass accuracy, which is perfectly sufficient for this kind of application.”

“We have worked with TerraStar corrections for many years,” Spagnoli said, “and we know that the error is within the specified parameters, and this is one of the things that has
allowed us to use and trust this technology for such a critical application. To us, TerraStar is very much a part of the complete NovAtel solution that we then pass on to our customers.”

Farther, Higher

GNSS applications are wide and varied. The needs and uses are real, and when it comes to precision location and guidance, NovAtel is delivering the goods.

“The standard use of NovAtel and TerraStar products in Latin America is basically for positioning agricultural machines working in fields among cereal crops,” Ballarotti said, "and this sort of thing is well suited for automated systems such as MicroElect’s self-steering technologies.

“On the other hand, this new snowplow application is really quite different and interesting. What MicroElect is doing in the Andes Mountains is a great illustration of the diverse, far away and unimaginable applications for high-precision GNSS that are still to be discovered.”