Once an oddity with a $50,000-plus price tag, automated steering is fast becoming mainstream, spurred in part by sharply dropping prices.

Agricultural power equipment and after-market automated steering manufacturers say that interest in automated steering systems is growing dramatically as growers recognize the potential of these systems to improve productivity of both their labor force and their crops.

Falling prices have undoubtedly contributed to the heightened interest. Today, a basic after-market steering system can be added for $5,000 to $7,000 — the price of a lightbar guidance system just a few years ago. Prices for higher-accuracy real-time kinematic (RTK) steering systems have fallen below the $20,000 barrier.

Automated steering manufacturers say that the market for automated steering products is at the “early adopter” phase but is beginning a transition to wider acceptance as more growers recognize the technology's benefits.

“The marketplace is moving rapidly,” says Sid Siefken, sales channel manager for Trimble Navigation. “A couple of years ago, if you bought an AutoPilot [Trimble's RTK automated steering product], the people down at the coffee shop thought you were crazy. Now they are marveling at the straight rows and being able to cultivate at night. Automated steering is not about being lazy; it's about being more efficient.”

“This is no longer science fiction, high-tech stuff,” adds Richard Gould of TeeJet Technologies. “Automated steering has become mainstream — a known commodity.”

Steering trends

Some competitors credit Trimble with shaking up the market when it introduced its EZ Steer steering-wheel-drive assisted steering system in late 2004. “That's when the gloves came off,” says one competitor.

Currently priced at about $5,500 for a complete system that provides 6- to 8-in. pass-to-pass accuracy, it set a new low-price mark for this entry-level segment.

Since then, numerous after-market steering system providers, including AutoFarm, Hemisphere GPS, Raven and TeeJet, have joined the ranks of manufacturers offering one or more steering systems for less than $10,000.

Hemisphere GPS and AutoFarm have drawn a line in the sand for low-cost RTK systems, which offer repeatability not found on basic systems. (See “Automated steering basics,” page 13.)

Although these systems don't provide the same sub-inch accuracy of higher-end RTK systems, they offer the repeatability necessary to use automated steering for multiple field operations throughout the season, says Jeff Farrar of Hemisphere GPS. “The direction we have taken is the mainstream consumer,” he says. “The $15,000 system serves the majority of growers who need repeatability without the additional cost of subscription fees.”

“RTK systems have been perceived as extremely expensive,” adds Deane Malott of AutoFarm. “Now they aren't.”

High-end RTK systems from the likes of John Deere, AGCO, Case IH, New Holland, AutoFarm and Trimble aren't far behind from a pricing standpoint for buyers served by the growing number of RTK networks. A fully featured stand-alone system with a base station can cost $30,000 or more. But the net price drops to the $18,000 to $23,000 range for some high-end RTK steering systems when the cost of a stand-alone RTK base station is eliminated.

By some estimates, RTK networks now cover about 120 million acres of U.S. farmland. (See “Accurate to the inch,” January 2007, page 23.) These networks typically require an annual subscription in the $1,500 to $2,000 range, or a one-time configuration fee.

Power equipment manufacturers continue to be key players in the automated steering trend. Virtually all manufacturers sell their own brands of automated steering equipment, and several offer brands from after-market makers as well. Most key manufacturers offer major tractor and combine models with guidance-ready wiring as standard equipment, and virtually all larger power equipment can be ordered with this feature.

New for 2007

AutoFarm, TeeJet and Raven are offering new automated steering models for 2007. A new player, Topcon Positioning Systems, also has entered the marketplace.

AutoFarm RighTrac offers 3-in. pass-to-pass repeatable accuracy in a system that uses its OnTrac wheel steering unit and an RTK base station for $16,500. For an additional $1,000, you can replace the OnTrac unit with a hydraulic steering package. Although the system offers less than the sub-inch accuracy of higher-end RTK systems, it will be attractive to many row-crop farmers, Malott says.

The new FieldPilot 220 from TeeJet Technologies is a hydraulic steering system that offers 8- to 12-in. pass-to-pass accuracy for $5,500. The system uses the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) GPS receiver in TeeJet's Centerline 220 lightbar (included in the price) to provide directional input to the steerer. A system with this accuracy is ideal for tillage and preplant and solid-seeded crop spraying, says Gould of TeeJet.

Raven Industries' new QuickTrax system uses AutoFarm's mechanical steering-wheel device, but pairs it with a Raven controller, lightbar and GPS receiver. Depending on the components, it provides 6- to 8-in. or 4- to 6-in. pass-to-pass accuracy for $7,400 or $15,780.

Topcon focuses on the ag market in 2006 with the purchase of KEE Technologies. It outfitted the X20 precision farming system with new Topcon GPS+ software, providing a multi-constellation satellite guidance system. The additional satellites provide higher accuracy and more up-time, says Rhett Schildroth of Topcon.

Implement steering ahead

Trimble, Case IH, New Holland and John Deere are adding implement steering options to their product lineups for 2007. They join AutoFarm, which introduced its implement steering system in 2006.

The Trimble TrueTracker Implement Steering system marries a high-end AgGPS 252 receiver, navigation controller and Orthman steering coulters in a system that integrates with (and requires) its AgGPS AutoPilot tractor steering system. It promises 1-in. repeatable accuracy for the implement following the tractor on slopes or variable soils that cause significant equipment side-draft. It sells for $16,995 for a two-coulter system, and $18,995 for a four-coulter system.

The John Deere iGuide system, which will be available in limited release in 2007, automatically shifts the steering pattern of the tractor to compensate for implement drift. It is compatible with John Deere AutoTrac integrated vehicles with GreenStar 2 systems (except 9000 series track and wheel tractors).

John Deere also has announced a completely automated system, the iTEC Pro that not only guides the tractor, but automates implement controls, ground speed and end turns at headland and interior boundaries. It will be available for limited release in 2007. Details about the Case IH and New Holland implement steering systems had not been released at press time.