AScottsdale company has taken farm mechanization to a new level by developing a system that automatically steers tractors using Global Positioning System satellites.
Satloc LLC, a subsidiary of Calgary, Alberta-based CSI Wireless, developed the technology to help farmers make more efficient use of their land and equipment.
The parent company has announced an initial $2.1 million purchase order from RHS, a Hiawatha, Kan.-based supplier of guidance products and agricultural sprayers, which will market the system under the "Outback eDrive" brand name.
The eDrive system became available about two weeks ago.
The system automatically steers tractors and self-propelled sprayers
along straight or curved rows. The driver needs his hands on the steering wheel only to turn the vehicle around at the end of each row. The eDrive automatically disengages at the end of the row and automatically re-engages when the turn is completed. Thus the driver can focus his attention on monitoring the planting, spraying or tilling going on behind the tractor.
"The eDrive does the actual steering of the tractor so there are no overlaps or skips, to make the most productive use of the field," said John Bohlke, Satloc product marketing manager.
The system includes of an antenna mounted on the roof of the tractor, a receiver that can be on the roof or in the cab and a steering unit that directs the vehicle. The GPS satellite transmits signals to the receiver, which uses the data to compute the position of the tractor. The operator manually performs a first pass along the edge of the field, and the steering system automatically directs the tractor to perform consistent consecutive passes covering the rest of the field.
The cost of the system is about $10,000 to retrofit a tractor. The system also will be available on new tractors. The savings to the farmer results from eliminating excess use of chemicals and waste of fuel via overlapping and in time savings, Bohlke said.
The eDrive units are priced several thousand dollars below competing autosteering systems, said Rick Heiniger, RHS chief executive.
Satloc, 7560 E. Redfield Road , Scottsdale, was formed in 1991 by a Casa Grande-based aerial spraying company, making GPS guidance systems for cropdusters. It didn’t take long to figure out that similar technology could help guide ground vehicles, and the company started producing ground guidance systems in 1994.
Previous Satloc systems directed the tractor driver using a light bar instrument that pointed the precise direction, but the operator still had to steer the machine. EDrive is the company’s first product that provides automatic steering.
Satloc was acquired in 1999 by CSI Wireless, a designer and manufacturer of GPS and wireless products used in more than 40 countries. The two companies have shared technology to improve their products, Bohlke said.
Roy Pfalpzgraff, a farmer in Haxtun, Colo., who has tested the eDrive system since August, said the major benefit he found was less stress on the farmer from having to wrestle with the tractor steering wheel and worrying about driving accuracy.
But it does require the farmer to trust that it’s working correctly, he said.
"We find it works best if you just let it go," he said.
He predicted that tractors will eventually be designed with GPS systems that won’t need any driver at all. In fact, some speciality farm equipment has already been designed that can operate unmanned, Pfalpzgraff said.
"We’ve just started with GPS," he said. "I don’t think we know everything that can be done with it."
As for the price, he said $10,000 isn’t a lot considering that new tractors cost $120,000.
"If we can improve efficiencies, so be it," he said. "In American agriculture, we need to keep improving our efficiency."