The invention and adoption of autosteer technology

Photo: Ton Kastermans
Photo: Ton Kastermans

It’s been nearly 25 years since the first handsfree autosteer systems became available. Which retrofit systems can you choose from today? Future Farming asked 14 suppliers about their solutions.

Many farmers across the globe nowadays rely on autosteer, auto guidance or autopilot systems. Systems that allow them to drive their tractors and self-propelled machines ‘handsfree’ in a straight line so they can focus on their machinery and the job they’re doing.

The technology allows them to automatically drive parallel to a field border, to previous and next tracks and to automatically follow contours and avoid certain areas or spots.

Almost immediately after the American global positioning system (GPS) was officially declared operational in 1995, and even before, companies ánd farmers (!) began developing steering aids, light bar guidance systems and autosteer systems.

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This photo was taken in 2007 and shows a John Deere tractor equipped with AutoTrac autosteer. - Photo: Jan Willem Schouten

This photo was taken in 2007 and shows a John Deere tractor equipped with AutoTrac autosteer. – Photo: Jan Willem Schouten

Early adopters and inventors

Australia is considered to be the country where autosteer systems were first used and developed. Before the United States and before Europe. According to the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), it was farmer Mike Mailler from Boggabilla in New South Wales who challenged his electrical engineer son, Robert, in 1993 (!) to design and build a steering system that would drive his self-propelled sprayer in a straight line. In 1997 Mike first used a controlled steering system and, based on its success, he moved to controlled-traffic farming (CTF).

The same year is mentioned in Agronomy Journal issue 4 of 2019. “Autosteer makes the control of CTF-systems a lot easier”, said Dr Rohan Rainbow, Managing Director of Crop Protection Australia to Future Farming earlier.

40% increase in production

Mike Mailler attributed a 40% increase in production to the new autosteer system and the Maillers started manufacturing and marketing their autosteer technologies as Beeline Technologies. GRDC reported that in 2000, a pre-production Beeline Arro autosteer system costed AUS $ 40,000 plus AUS $ 15,000 for a universal base station.

Their technology is now Chinese-owned and re-branded to Hemisphere GNSS. With an early eye for the potential of gps and autosteer technology in farming, American manufacturers John Deere and Trimble were among the pioneering companies each after acquiring one or more specialist companies.

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Ag leader's SteerCommand offers up to sub-inch repeatable accuracy and is deal for field operations requiring high accuracy steering including planting, spraying, tillage and other field operations that require precise placement of inputs. - Photo: Ag Leader

Ag leader’s SteerCommand offers up to sub-inch repeatable accuracy and is deal for field operations requiring high accuracy steering including planting, spraying, tillage and other field operations that require precise placement of inputs. – Photo: Ag Leader

Adoption rates up to 90%

In pioneering country Australia, autosteer adoption nowadays is extremely high. “The adoption rate is now probably more than 90%”, says Dr Rainbow. The 13th annual No-Till Operational Benchmark Study, with more than 800 US and international farmers participating, forecasted early 2021 that 77% of all respondents plans to use autosteer technology this year.

In another pioneering country, The Netherlands, where civil technology importer Geometius sold the first Trimble lightbar system in 2002 and the first RTK-gps autopilot system to an organic farmer with a CTF cropping system in 2003, the adoption is also very high. Market research company AgriDirect recently asked 2,000 Dutch arable farmers about precision farming technology adoption and their investment plans. The survey shows that over 50% of them use gps on their tractor. Of farmers with a farm size over 100 hectares (60 ha is the average arable farm size), 90% uses gps and another 7% has gps investment plans this year. 3.7% of the respondents interestingly enough already use autonomous machinery on their farms.

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Dutch company Vantage Agrometius offers brand-independent Trimble RTK-gps autopilot systems, for new and older tractors. - Photo: Koos Groenewold

Dutch company Vantage Agrometius offers brand-independent Trimble RTK-gps autopilot systems, for new and older tractors. – Photo: Koos Groenewold

14 suppliers approached

In its relatively short period of existence, Future Farming already has quite a history of providing insights and buying guides of autosteer technology. In 2017 we approached manufacturers that offer fully integrated systems that could be fitted to any brand of machine with a price tag of around US $ 25,000. Early 2018, we provided an overview with 6 of the best budget GPS guidance systems available and in 2019, we thoroughly tested 6 factory-fitted autosteer systems.

With technology still developing at a rapid pace, we have now approached 14 manufacturers of retrofit autosteer systems across the world with solutions for electrical and hydraulic ‘handsfree’ autosteer systems. We have asked them about the most striking detail of their solution, about the minimum and maximum driving speeds possible, about the capability of doing autoturns on headlands and about the compatibility with the currently 4 types of satellite systems.

Do they offer a solution to temporarily continue using autosteer when reception of satellite or correction signals lacks or fails? Which licenses and unlocks are available and at what costs? And of course, it will be very interesting so see what prices you have to pay in 2021 for autosteer technology. Have prices gone down (a lot)?

Find it all in our upcoming market overview of retrofit autosteer systems!

Koerhuis
René Koerhuis Precision Farming Specialist