WHEN THE FIRST prototype autosteer tractors came out a few years ago, many farmers considered them an expensive oddity that would never catch on. Times changed, and somewhere between then and now, an autosteer gold rush began.

The tipping point may have occurred last August when John Deere dropped a bombshell. According to the John Deere Journal, sales of the John Deere AutoTrac automated guidance system had tripled from the previous year. Tony Thelen, a John Deere marketing manager, even credited an increase in tractor sales to the popularity of AutoTrac when he stated, “We have customers who have bought tractors because they wanted AutoTrac.”

It didn't take long for competitors to realize that kind of buying behavior meant there was unmet demand for autosteer products. And though still in the catbird seat, John Deere would not remain the absolute autosteer gatekeeper for long.

A convergence of components and technologies made aftermarket autosteer systems easier to afford and operate. Farmers started buying the systems from several companies and installing them on their tractors. Those companies scrambled to one-up each other with products that could do more for less money. Now it seems every month equipment gets better and cheaper as more companies and farmers jump in.

Open for business

The trend toward hands-free steering is evident at specialty distributors such as Rust Sales. The company, just outside Fargo, ND, specializes in precision agriculture equipment and variable rate fertilizer control systems. Brothers Dale and Perry Rust say business is booming. They run the business along with their 3,100-acre soybean and confection sunflower farm, which also serves as a proving ground for some of the newest autosteer and controller technologies, including the Beeline Arro system.

Dale says it has taken some time for farmers to warm up to the idea of no-hands steering. “Two years ago, we'd go to trade shows and farmers would ask, ‘Why would I want that?’ Now that prices are coming down, these same guys are asking how to get one installed on their tractor.”

Steering interface

Autosteer systems are easiest to install on rubber track tractors, such as the John Deere T or Challenger. It gets a little more complicated with a wheel or articulated tractor. Either requires additional steering kits that allow mechanical steering to take commands from the electronic system. That's why a crucial extension of Rust Sales' business is to help develop steering component kits for different kinds of tractors. Each different tractor model requires a unique steering kit.

“We've put autosteer in a lot of different types of machines,” Dale says. “Everything from combines to front-assist tractors, self-propelled sprayers and articulated tractors. We've even done steering kits for model 800 Versatile tractors. That was a tough one, but we've got it now so it works really well.”

Perry agrees that having steering kits that fit many kinds of machines is a key to making the systems pay for themselves season-long. “It's easy to move the Arro controller from one machine to another, so you use the same screen interface for planting, cultivating, spraying, harvest and fertilizer,” Perry explains. “For that to work, though, each machine needs a steering kit.”

Making it pay

In 2003, the Rusts used the same Beeline Arro system with RTK on a Case IH STX 440 articulated tractor and on a combine. RTK, which triangulates signals from a ground base station to correct errors from GPS satellites, can achieve static accuracy that is consistently as good as one inch.

For Arro RTK, the controller and base station cost about $24,500. Each steering kit costs about $5,500. That's a lot less than the $50,000 a similarly capable system would have cost three years ago, but still a significant expense that needs to be justified.

The Rusts say, in some instances, two farmers might share one base station. The station has a line-of-sight range of about six miles for “centimeter” accuracy or nearly double that range for accuracy within four inches. Adding small repeater antennae won't increase the range but can help route the base station signals around obstructions such as hills or large grain bins.

The most tangible benefit is reduced input expenses. “If you are pulling a wide implement, it's difficult to see exactly where the end of it is, so without autosteer you end up overlapping a few feet on each pass,” Perry says. “Those expenses add up. One of our 2,500-acre customers saved $1,000 just on anhydrous costs in one year. Similarly, not overlapping on tillage saves time and fuel. And you'll also waste less chemical when spraying with the system.”

Unexpected benefits

The Rusts didn't expect the big benefit they realized from putting autosteer on their combine. Then they found that eliminating inconsistent overlap on a wide bean head not only speeds harvest, but significantly improves yield monitor accuracy. “If you're running a variable-rate fertility program, a lot of it starts with yield data from the combine,” Dale says. “You'll get much better and more meaningful results if you're not starting out with skewed yield data.”

Less tangible, but no less real, is reduced driver strain. “Hands-free lets you or a rookie driver go faster for longer periods of time,” Perry says. “You only need to turn around at the end of the field. The rest of the time you're monitoring the air seeder or checking the yield monitor, answering the cell phone or eating lunch. In some cases, getting more done faster with one machine may mean one machine can do the job of two.”

Labor saver

For the Rusts and many of their customers, perhaps the best part of autosteer is that it often gets them out of the tractor altogether. “Years ago, they always used to say technology would let farmers farm out of their office,” Dale says. “Now that claim is becoming closer to realty.”

“Even a high school kid can be a first-class driver in a few minutes,” Perry claims. “With just a little training, Beeline let us turn a young rookie loose cultivating high-value sunflowers. On the other hand, our dad who is an old pro was afraid of the system at first, but now he doesn't want to drive the tractor without it. When you consider its potential to integrate with precision agriculture, I really think automated steering opens the door to better ways of doing things. This could be the biggest boon to productivity since the four-wheel-drive tractor.”

The next level

It's not just no-hands steering. Autosteer controllers are evolving into virtual terminals (VTs) that let the farmer control and monitor multiple tractor and implement functions on one screen. Increasingly, these VTs slide in and out of docking stations to be used in multiple machines.

One of the biggest selling points of the Beeline Arro is that the interface is easy to swap from one machine equipped with a steering kit to another. When we interviewed the Rusts last fall, they were looking forward to a new technology from Raven Industries developed in conjunction with Beeline that would offer the same flexibility for variable-rate applications.

Raven announced the release of that technology in December. Raven sells what it calls the Viper True Line Steer Controller. The company's new Raven Dock product allows farmers to move the Viper interface from one machine to another as easily as they can move the Beeline Arro. But where the Arro controls only steering, the Raven Viper provides an all-in-one nerve center, which can create and use coverage maps for variable-rate application of fertilizer, chemicals or seed. The system offers three levels of accuracy, using Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), HP Omnistar or RTK GPS signals.

In addition to its alliance with Beeline, Raven recently acquired Fluent Systems to add wireless anhydrous ammonia control to its package of integrated precision ag solutions.

Healthy competition

While Raven is bringing all these pieces together, it is up against some stiff competition from other companies that want to do the same thing.

In addition to their own product development, big machinery companies often team up with or license technology from precision ag companies such as Trimble. Most recently, CNH announced that it will offer Trimble's AgGPS Autopilot as an option on many of the company's larger-sized Case IH and New Holland tractors, giving farmers still more choices in the autosteer market.

In addition to its tractor company alliances, Trimble offers its own aftermarket precision ag systems. The company is sure to watch competitors such as Raven, IntegriNautics' AutoFarm and Midwest Technologies closely. That's good news for farmers, who stand to see increasing improvements in technology and pricing.

Aftermarket sources for autosteer products

AutoFarm
1350 Willow Rd.
Menlo Park, CA 94025
218/532-3972
www.gpsfarm.com

Beeline Technologies Inc.
1070 W. 124th Ave.
Suite 900
Westminster, CO 80234
303/457-9333

Midwest Technologies
7200 France Ave. S.
Suite 128
Minneapolis, MN 55425
952/831-4922
www.mid-tech.com

Raven Industries Inc.
Box 5107
Sioux Falls, SD 57117
800/243-5435
www.ravenprecision.com

Trimble
5475 Kellenburger Rd.
Dayton, OH 45424
www.trimble.com