MEMS give farmers the straight story on productive planting

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Oct. 29, 2002 — Workers in most rural areas across the United States toiled hard this fall to haul in their summer harvests and get the ground prep done before winter cold freezes the soil.

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But Cameron Calaway, cool as a cucumber in his button-up shirt and jeans, doesn’t seem stressed at all. Thanks to the Beeline Technologies Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) installed on his tractor, spraying pesticide for next year’s potato and onion crops for this Mattawa, Wash., farmer has been a breeze.

“We have no overlap anymore,” says Calaway. “These systems eliminate the gap with three-fourths-inch accuracy. You can skip over four or five rows as you like so you don’t have to waste time turning or looping around.”

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Assisted steering devices have been around since the ’70s. Airline pilots used them as navigation tools. A few farmers used them, too. But the earlier versions had all the features you don’t want on a farm tractor: they were sensitive to vibration, had a short life and low temperature range.

What Beeline has done is produce a light and durable precision GPS/INS (inertial navigation system) tool unaffected by poor light, glare or dust — perfect for rough farm conditions. Beeline Technologies is an Australian company that has been selling systems to Aussie farmers since 1994. They work with Crossbow Technology Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based MEMS company. Beeline is now targeting the United States — an ample market with 2.1 million farms according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last census.

The Beeline DGP system is a controller and screen that plugs directly into the tractor’s steering system so the driver can drive straight with hands-free steering and sub-inch accuracy. It costs $18,000 a pop and is ideal for anyone needing to drive a tractor with precision: primary tillage, planting seeds and distributing fertilizer, says Bridget Kirkwood, Beeline’s marketing coordinator in the United States.

Minimum till farmers (people who limit how often the field is ploughed) like assisted steering as well, Kirkwood adds. A farmer with a three-year crop rotation (for instance, wheat one year, chickpeas the next then wheat again) can offset the plant line by 3 to 4 inches every year, leaving the stubble to degenerate naturally into the soil.

Trimble Navigation Ltd., AutoFarm from IntegriNautics Corp. and John Deere & Co. are Beeline’s competitors, though Beeline was the first to commercialize the technology and has a bigger share of the market.

Since Beeline set up its Westminster, Colo., office, U.S. sales and deals have taken off. AGCO Corp., the farm vehicle manufacturer, expanded on last year’s deal by extending Beeline technology to all its product lines (not just the CAT Challenger MT tractors.) In August, Raven Industries Inc., which makes application control systems for agriculture, partnered with Beeline.

Then, in September venture capitalists GE Equity raised $11.4 million for the company. “Our technology is just now becoming mainstream,” Kirkwood says.

The incentive for farmers to use steering assist is to save money lost by overlap. When you consider that it costs $80 an acre, and the average farmer overlaps about 10 percent per pass, an average 2,000-acre wheat farm loses $16,000 per growing season, Kirkwood points out.

Farmers say the technology also saves them time. For Calaway, the Washington farmer, it normally takes 24 hours to fertilize a 125-acre field. With Beeline he saves three hours per field. And because the tractor is working from the GPS signals, the operator doesn’t need to see ahead in order to operate the tractor. That means farmers can hire workers so the tractor can run 24/7.

What makes the steering assist affordable for agricultural giants like Caterpillar is MEMS technology from Crossbow, which developed techniques and algorithms to use the sensors most effectively. “It was a natural fit,” says Dean Johnson, Crossbow’s vice president of inertial systems. “It’s cheap because we use a combination of low cost sensors and high performance software.”

Agriculture economists like Darren Hudson, associate professor at Mississippi State University, say that while hoards of small tech firms have targeted farms in the last three years and the technology is becoming more refined, profitability for these farmers is still questionable.

“Its really nice that you can drive down a field in a straight line,” Hudson says. “But it doesn’t really help you that much unless you can couple it with controlling your pesticides and fertilizers.”

Hudson says that once companies integrate steering assist with GPS and precision application, farmers will read where the field lacks nutrients or has a large bug population. Using steering assist, they’ll be able to precisely control where pesticides and fertilizers are sprayed.

“No company’s integrated all this yet,” he says. “But that would reduce wasting sprays and have enormous environmental benefits as well as profits for the farmers.”


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