It's high tech made simple. GPS-guided lightbars and full-screen steering-assist systems tell farmers which way to turn the steering wheel and stay on course. Spanning generation gaps, the flashy graphics get teenagers interested in farming, while simplicity and reduced driver strain encourage retired patriarchs to get back to cultivating and spraying.

The adoption rate of these simple guidance systems currently outpaces any attempts to track them. Yet this is likely just the first wave of a much bigger trend. Companies that sell GPS guidance products see entry-level steering-assist systems as a foot in the door that will help persuade farmers to take their GPS to new levels of functionality and sophistication.

Hustling between potential customers at the most recent National Farm Machinery Show, Trimble regional sales manager Levi Kettle remarked that many farmers are rapidly advancing their comfort level with GPS guidance technology. At the Trimble booth, and the booths of several competitors around the show, farmers lined up to get more information about the newest guidance products.

“More and more, we hear from growers who say they wouldn't farm without a guidance system on their tractor or sprayer,” Kettle said. “The adoption curve is changing quickly and we expect to see a similar pattern with hands-free steering and other advanced precision agriculture features in the next few years.”

But will a farmer's technology purchase today become obsolete tomorrow? It appears that companies in the GPS guidance business are setting up their products to be upgradable. Their strategy seems geared toward encouraging fence-sitting farmers to jump in for the first time while allowing early adopters to upgrade their systems to take the next step up the technology ladder.

For those of you not willing to let go of the wheel just yet, there are reliable and affordable options that can reduce driver strain, improve input placement and maybe even let you cast aside old technology like foam markers. Because these systems are upgradable, you can always choose to add features, and pay more, later.

Chances are that an existing lightbar can be tweaked into a system that provides full autosteer, curved path guidance or sophisticated map-based variable rate capabilities for applying chemicals and fertilizer. You can start small and build your system over time by adding components, software or new GPS services.

The following are only a few of the precision ag products and upgrades to hit the market in recent months. At any rate, the evolution of precision farming will be interesting to watch as autosteer gains momentum.

Trimble AgGPS EZ-Guide Plus

One of the simplest and least expensive lightbar systems is also one of the most upgradable. At its most basic level, Trimble's $2,795 LED lightbar/LCD screen combo can be installed and operational in minutes. Three buttons on top of the compact lightbar control the system. The LCD screen improves intuitive turn and curve guidance. The entry-level system provides one-foot pass-to-pass accuracy using free Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) differential correction. Automatic swath advance works for straight, curved or pivot patterns. If desired, screen instructions will walk you through a setup procedure for each field, then display a map showing the current position and the path to follow. It also will show off-line distance, swath number, speed and field area. Views can be switched from “overhead” to “perspective.”

For additional control, a keypad option is available for $195. Beyond that, a wide assortment of more advanced features is available from Trimble's portfolio of precision ag tools, allowing upgrades such as Autopilot DGPS or RTK automated steering, applied mapping, soil sampling, variable rate application, and two-inch pass-to-pass accuracy. These additional upgrades can cost substantially more that the entry-level system itself, but if you do upgrade, at least you won't be throwing away your initial investment.

For more information, contact Trimble Navigation Ltd., Agriculture Business Area, Dept. FIN, 9290 Bond St., Suite 102, Overland Park, KS 66214, 913/495-2700, visit www.ez-guide.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 220. This product also is offered by Ag Leader Technology. Contact the company at 2202 S. Riverside Dr., Ames, IA 50010, 515/232-5363, visit www.agleader.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 221.

Raven Smartrax

This automated steering product is available as a full system or as an upgrade to current lightbar/receiver systems. The full system, which retails for $8,490, includes Raven's Swath Smart lightbar, a Raven GPS receiver, HydraSteer hydraulic steering kit and Smartrax controller. An upgrade kit that adds automated steering to an existing Raven lightbar and receiver costs $5,295.

Raven's hydraulic steering kits are available for numerous models of tractors. Pass-to-pass accuracy within 9 in. makes the system compatible for herbicide and fertilizer application, broadcast spreading, broad-acre seeding and some tillage operations. The system's processing capabilities and a 10-Hz update allow ground speeds up to 20 mph. The system can use WAAS, Coast Guard Beacon or OmniStar signals.

For more information, contact Raven Industries, Dept. FIN, Box 5107, Sioux Falls, SD 57117, 800/243-5435, visit www.ravenprecision.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 222.

AutoFarm Curves module

Sure, straight is great. Now get ready for automated steering that follows curves. A recently released software upgrade to AutoFarm's sub-inch RTK system allows the same accuracy for a curved path over the field. Sophisticated algorithms in the new software allow autosteer to drive headlands, terraces, contours, riverbanks and even spiral paths to the center of the field. The product features an easy-to-use touch screen with a moving map display. Operators can switch between straight-path steering and curved steering without stopping the tractor. A record and repeat feature will store the tractor's exact path for use in subsequent operations or growing seasons.

Current owners of AutoFarm's AutoSteer RTK GPS system can upgrade to the “Curves” feature for $3,995. Starting from scratch, a new system with base station and the Curves module costs $40,000 to $45,000. The upgrade also will work with AutoFarm's lower-cost StepOne DGPS system to deliver 4- to 8-in. accuracy.

For more information, contact IntegriNautics Corp., Dept. FIN, 1505 Adams Dr., Menlo Park, CA 94025, 866/428-8632, visit www.gpsfarm.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 223.

Cultiva ATC

Not an autosteer system yet, the current Cultiva system is at least a step better than most lightbars. Moreover, the Cultiva “virtual highway” guidance concept has caught on with many farmers who like to see their path on a color screen before they drive it. Cultiva has continually upgraded its software to add new capabilities to its easy-to-use system. Recent upgrades include the addition of language options, data logging, overhead mapping of application coverage, contours and circle guidance. In addition to guidance, the control screen can store field maps and help automate equipment functions. And like many of its competitive products, the unit can be moved from a tractor to other equipment.

The Cultiva system offers curved guidance capabilities at sub-meter accuracy, which is generally good enough for most spraying and broadcast applications. Cultiva is planning expansions to a number of new functions in the future, including decimeter DGPS accuracy and near sub-inch RTK DGPS. Other options on the horizon include expanding the current system to autosteer capability, multiple vehicle tracking, environmental monitoring, field mapping and a remote keypad. These options are likely to add significant cost as they become available, but the company says all will work as expansion modules to the current Cultiva ATC unit, which sells for $4,995.

For more information, contact Cultiva, Dept. FIN, 26 W. Lone Cactus Dr., Suite 800, Phoenix, AZ 85027, 623/580-5070, visit www.cultiva.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 224.

Outback E-Diff software

One of the fastest and most effective ways to upgrade any guidance system is to improve its software. Companies may allow buyers to download new software online, or the software might be mailed on a disk. Sometimes premium software is preloaded on a system, giving buyers the option to purchase a code that activates the premium product. Outback's E-Diff GPS correction software is one example of this last method.

When installed on an Outback S system, E-Diff can be activated with a one-time subscription code, which costs $590. The subscription code can be used only in North America and is valid for the life of the Outback S console. Each subscription code activates a single Outback S console serial number. Software and the subscription code may be loaded from a PC or from a 360.

The software correction method uses only the standard GPS satellites and does not require an external correction signal of any type. It works by analyzing the error trends from the GPS satellites and projecting new correction values into the future. This technique is stable and accurate within short time frames, making it suitable for progressive pass-to-pass guidance. As long as each pass is within a few minutes of the last pass, accuracy performance is excellent. Because the 24-hour repeatability is not as accurate as satellite-based correction, a feature is included that allows the operator to correct the starting point today with the ending point from yesterday so the job can be continued seamlessly. An Outback S guidance system with activated E-Diff software costs $4,289.

For more information, contact Outback Guidance, Dept. FIN, 2005 W. Oregon St., Hiawatha, KS 66434, 800/247-3808, visit www.outbackguidance.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 225.

Landmark II

The rugged components of this lightbar system may look a bit dated, but starting at $3,295, the Landmark II has some interesting features and upgrades worth checking out. The basic lightbar system includes mapping software, a compact flash memory card and reader, WAAS receiver, exterior lightbar and a simple-to-understand control box. For an additional $6,995, the system can be upgraded to Landmark's Chauffeur autosteer system, which works on most hydraulically steered vehicles. Buying the system with autosteer from the start costs $9,700. Landmark also offers a “moving highway” screen option as an alternative to the lightbar. The company says it will offer a heads-up display in the windshield soon.

For more information, contact Smucker Mfg., Dept. FIN, 22919 N. Coburg Rd., Harrisburg, OR 97446, 800/333-4503, visit www.landmarkguidance.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 226.