The Same systems used to fly U.S. Air Force Predator drone airplanes from computer terminals thousands of miles away could become the next big thing in agriculture.

Although farmers aren't likely to be driving tractors, sprayers and combines by remote control anytime soon, rudimentary versions of the communications technology that would make this possible are likely to become standard features in the not-too-distant future.

For now, this technology will be used to report everything from equipment location and travel speed to complete machine operation information, including real-time fuel and sprayer/combine tank levels. The potential payoffs for using these systems include better machine use efficiency, improved maintenance and reduced downtime.

The technology that makes these systems possible is called telemetry, or telematics. Simply put, telemetry captures and reports information automatically from afar, typically to a central computer server. If you close the loop by communicating back to the device in question, a tractor, for example, you have the makings of a Predator-like remote-controlled system. Cutting-edge two-way telemetry systems that allow engine electronics to be automatically diagnosed and fixed remotely already are a reality.

Telemetry systems that report engine functions and other key information will be widely available in the next few years.

“Telemetry is the next big technology that will be adopted in agriculture,” says Mark Moore, head of AGCO's worldwide telemetry development effort. “Adoption will be quite rapid.”

That's possible in part because technologies used in telemetry systems are already in use in other industries, including transportation, construction and mining. Off-the-shelf components are ready and available to slap into the cab.

The challenge for telemetry providers — and a major factor behind how fast this technology will take off — is to make sure its value justifies its cost.

“The technological barriers [to offering telemetry systems] aren't there,” Moore says. “The question is, how do we apply telemetry so the customer can make money out of it? Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule that if you buy telemetry you will save 5% on your running costs.”

“Farmers aren't interested in nice-to-have systems,” adds Mark Bittner, head of telematics for Topcon Positioning Systems. “They are interested in something that is must-have, that can reduce costs and improve productivity.”

OnStar template

OnStar is perhaps the most widely known telemetry system in the U.S. today. And the agriculture systems in the works or currently on the shelf largely mimic OnStar's capabilities.

OnStar's in-vehicle safety, security and information services system is a template for the technology and services being deployed in agriculture. It uses cellular communications, GPS satellites and operations data from the vehicle's CANbus to link vehicles to a central computer server and service center. Using this system, in an average month, OnStar unlocks doors on 62,000 cars, conducts remote diagnostics on 54,000 vehicles and coordinates 2,000 automatic crash responses.

Agricultural telemetry systems essentially use the same technologies, minus some of the frills such as service center operators to contact the user in case of an accident. Instead, information will be delivered via Web sites, which will capture and display the parameters the owner wants to track. The information flow will be supplemented by automated cell phone, e-mail and/or text alerts when preset alarms (tied to engine error codes, required maintenance or low fuel tank levels, for example) go off.

In addition to receiving automated alerts, ag telemetry customers will be able to access machine data on a password-protected Web site via a Web-enabled cell phone or PC. Some are expected to have graphic interfaces that mimic an implement's monitor. Tools to analyze trends in key operating parameters are another possible feature.

Ag telemetry ramps up

By the looks of things, you will have a lot of agricultural telemetry service offerings from which to choose in the next couple of years. Virtually all the major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as well as guidance system companies and others, say they are developing telemetry systems for agriculture. Some systems already have been on the market a few months.

For example, both Topcon and Trimble introduced telemetry products in 2008. Companies such as LOFA Industries and TeleNav, which focus on transportation, industrial engine and other markets, also offer plug-and-play telemetry systems that can be used in ag equipment.

Among OEMs, Deere is the first to announce a new telemetry system. It plans to begin offering two new telemetry products in 2009. They replace its JDLink Machine Messenger system, a telemetry system Deere introduced in 2002. The company withdrew Machine Messenger from the market early last year when the Federal Communications Commission allowed the analog cellular communications system on which it was based to be shut down.

Other OEMs say they will have systems on the market within a year or two. Other providers are likely, too, including Leica, which announced it was pilot-testing a telemetry system in 2008. (See “Remote-controlled farming,” September 2008.)

“We probably are one or two years away from introducing something,” says Chris Brubaker, precision farming product manager for New Holland. “First, we really have to have a solid value story for the customer.”

The cost/value equation

Although John Deere says its JDLink Machine Messenger product was successful, its competitors say it presents a cautionary tale about a technology that was too costly for what it offered, in part because it was ahead of its time.

When introduced in 2002, Machine Messenger, which was available for 20 series tractors with cabs, had a $2,495 hardware price tag, plus a $495 annual service fee. It provided information such as a tractor's location, engine operating state, and total idling, working and transporting time. It also kept a log listing all “warning” and “stop engine” alerts generated by the tractor's computer.

“JDLink Machine Messenger was very successful,” says Chrissie Cartmell of Deere's Ag Management Solutions group. “Folks that used it liked it.”

Since 2002, the hardware costs associated with telemetry systems have plummeted.

Current products

The price of current systems centers around $1,000/machine, plus a monthly service fee.

The least-expensive systems generally provide information derived from GPS data collected from built-in GPS receivers. Some systems supplement this data with limited machine operation data collected from analog sensors connected to fuel, temperature, pressure, tank and other dial-type gauges. More expensive options also offer GPS-related data, plus data collected from the machine's CANbus system.

GPS-related information allows tracking of a machine's path and speed over time, including current location and speed, as well as operating hours. These systems typically send the user an alert when a machine leaves a designated area.

CANbus telemetry systems collect data over time so a producer can analyze trends that can help improve operating efficiencies and warn of impending breakdowns. Alarms also can be set to alert the user when key operating parameters go out of bounds, when regular maintenance is needed, fuel or spray tanks are at low levels, etc.

Typically, telemetry system hardware includes a black box module containing a GPS receiver, a small computer and a cellular data card, plus an external GPS antenna. CANbus systems are designed to be plugged directly into the vehicle's CANbus.

The Topcon Tierra system, which offers several hardware options and service levels, costs $300 to $1,500/machine for hardware, plus a service fee of $20 to $50/month.

“We are an all-makes solution,” Bittner says. “We don't care if the machine is a Deere or a Fendt or a Case. We work seamlessly on all makes.”

For more information, contact Tierra, Dept. FIN, 7400 National Dr., Livermore, CA 94550, 925/245-8447, visit www.topcontierra.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 117.

Trimble's Ag Manager system focuses primarily on location-derived information from the GPS device built into its CrossCheck communications module. It also can capture and report data from up to four digital sensors and has the ability to send and receive short text messages. Ag Manager costs $695 for hardware, plus a monthly service fee of $24.95 to $49.95.

For more information, contact Trimble Navigation Ltd., Ag Business Area, Dept. FIN, 9290 Bond St., Suite 102, Overland Park, KS 66214, 800/865-7438, visit www.trimble.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 118.

John Deere will introduce two telemetry products in the spring of 2009, according to Cartmell. JDLink Select is a GPS-based all-makes, all-models solution that offers machine information such as location and hours. It also allows the user to manage equipment maintenance and set a geofence or curfew alert to notify the owner that the machine has been started or moved outside of the user-defined settings.

For more information, contact your John Deere dealer, visit www.johndeereag.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 119.

LOFA Industries' CANplus Messenger is designed for plug-and-play installation and has a user-customizable Web interface. It sells for $800 to $1,000, with monthly service fees ranging from $25 to $50.

For more information, contact LOFA Industries Inc., Dept. FIN, 250 Hembree Park Dr., Suite 122, Roswell, GA 30076, 770/569-9828, visit www.lofa.net or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 120.

The TeleNav Asset Tracker is the low-cost leader among these offerings. For $199.95, plus $19.95 a month, this battery-powered GPS-based device tracks the current vehicle location, as well as its recent movements. Alerts can be set to let the user know when vehicles enter or leave specified areas. Hard-wired models also are available.

For more information, contact TeleNav, Dept. FIN, 1130 Kifer Rd., Sunnyvale, CA 94086, 888/353-6282, visit www.telenavtrack.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 121.

Challenges, payoffs

GPS-based systems generally are brand neutral, but those providing CANbus information face compatibility challenges. This lack of universality may present challenges to telemetry customers with multi-branded equipment.

Ultimately, how rapidly farmers adopt telemetry systems will depend on how much value they can derive from them. Proponents say that improved logistics, reduced downtime and better machine longevity through improved maintenance will more than pay for the cost of a telemetry system.

“There is a lot of potential here,” says Moore of AGCO. “We just need to get through the initial adoption barrier and get customers thinking about the possibilities. If we do it right, it will be the next big technology that agriculture adopts. But if we make it too expensive or complicated, it will stay on the shelf.”