RTK Signals Transitioning to RTK Service

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With the launch of the first global positioning satellite, the proverbial snowball rolling down a mountain was put into motion. It continues to gather speed and mass. What started as a national defense measure is now the basis for efficient transport of people, goods and services throughout the world. In agriculture it has redefined the application of crop inputs and how equipment is operated. With the dawning of the age of autonomous vehicles (See AP December 2011), it is integral to reshaping how farming is done, how farms are managed and how AgProfessional readers will service the new style farmers.

Mike Gomes "Accuracy is to a certain sense, addictive," said Mike Gomes, Topcon. "Users will find ways to use the most accurate signals available. As manufacturers put out new products that require better signals and they get adopted, it drives demand for the signals."

It has taken the GPS industry nearly 30 years to get to the current level of signal accuracy. Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) correction signals from base stations and wireless virtual stations, and the addition of the Glonass, Galileo and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) as they come online, have strengthened the potential for robust and repeatable signals. With more birds in the sky, it is increasingly less likely that gaps in signal availability will appear.


One sign of the importance of multiple GNSS constellation tracking is its growing availability. Where only Topcon offered it a few years ago, it is rapidly becoming a standard offering from John Deere, Trimble and others. In fact, it was one of the drivers in the Trimble acquisition of OmniStar correction signals service in 2011.

"We wanted the bandwidth to deliver repeatable, 1.5-inch accuracy signals with no need for a modem or radio," explained Chad Pfitzer, Trimble. "OmniStar gave us the ability to integrate the GPS and other GNSS signals for faster and more accurate triangulation. With our CenterPoint RTX product, we can deliver initialization in as little as a minute, while CenterPoint RTK and VRS offer it in less than a minute." 

Chad Pfitzer As new uses for highest accuracy signals have come online, faster initialization, constant availability and repeatability are increasingly becoming “must-haves” for users. Introduction of technologies such as auto-steering, boom section and planter row shut-offs have created growing demand from progressive farmers and their service providers. John Deere's Machine Sync, AGCO's Direct Connect and Kinze's autonomous planter and grain cart are just the opening salvos of the latest revolution in agriculture, and all require dependable high quality signals.

"More and more farmers and service providers are seeing the value of higher accuracy signals, whether decimeter or lower," said Gomes. "What was good enough is becoming less good enough. As users understand and utilize corrected signals, needs grow. When they do, they require RTK."

He went on to suggest that increasing third-party ownership of base systems is driving RTK availability. Pfitzer agreed, pointing to a dependability from private suppliers that outweighs lower cost availability from public entities such as state Departments of Transportation CORS.

"There is a service component that is lacking with DOT-based systems," Pfitzer said. "They have limited money to maintain a network, and farmer users aren't at the top of their list of priority users. This past spring, there were problems in Iowa with the DOT CORS system that our customers didn't have to deal with."

Cole Murray, John Deere, cited another advantage of private-signal providers and that is redundancy. The company's Starfire correction signal is available to subscribers at multiple definitions from 25 centimeter to 10 centimeter of pass-to-pass accuracy with the highest being Starfire RTK with +/- 2.5 centimeters of pass to pass accuracy. Although the company's GPS receivers can also operate using the free government-provided WAAS, its availability is not well-supported. Starfire's signals are supported by John Deere.

"When we purchased time on a satellite network for the Starfire signal, we also got redundancy," he said. "We have experienced 99.9 percent uptime. This spring the Starfire signal over Australia went down, and our receivers simply switched over to another signal."


John Deere dealers provide base station services for Starfire RTK customers. CORS or other wireless-based signals are not an option. While Murray doesn't say they never will, at this point, there are no plans to change. Although both Trimble and Topcon offer the wireless option for RTK signals, they also both continue to endorse base stations.

RTK base station signals, are becoming a reality for more and more farmers and their service providers throughout much of the country, with the exception of some western states. In areas without dependable service, mobile base stations such as this are an effective alternative. Even in areas with available signals, some producers prefer to ensure dependable signal access with their own mobile base station. "We still sell radio RTK as the gold standard, whether from a fixed tower or a mobile station," said Pfitzer. "There remains a revenue stream available to those who provide them to surrounding farmers."

"We don't see local base stations going away," offered Gomes. "Some prefer to own and control their own base stations. When you own and control, you aren't subject to what others do with the system."

Gomes goes on to note that while RTK has been used by the construction industry longer than in agriculture, there are now more total systems in agriculture. He suggested that agriculture will quickly pick up on another commonality in the construction industry, i.e., plug and play with cross compatibility and leveraging of components.

Gomes said where ISO1173 for compatibility between tractor and implement has taken 10 years or more, he predicted signal and component compatibility will be driven more quickly by economics. Part of that has already come about with industry consolidation. The rest will be user driven and is showing up in consoles first.

"Five to seven years ago, if you wanted RTK, you had to put up your own base station," said Gomes. "Now there may be a local source. Receivers and controllers are growing together and working with existing displays where once we had three separate components. Valves and sensors are OEM installed. The next generation of consoles is here with color touch screens. The question becomes what else can I do to integrate systems?"


Pfitzer has an equally clear vision of the need for compatibility, especially when it comes to the data streams sent and received. It is part of the vision the company holds for its Farmworks division. "We have a data-rich environment coming from the field, whether it goes to the cloud or a PC at the farm or a piece is shot to regulators, the co-op, the agronomist or the bank," said Pftizer. "The data stream needs to be open no matter what color the equipment is," he said. "The user needs to be able to pull data out and push it where they want it to go."

Pfitzer suggested that full-service ag retailers have a tremendous opportunity in this regard. "They could be a major force, since they have already connected a lot of people together," he said. "Right now there is data coming in, but no one is gathering it or teaching users how to work with it."

What the data stream or the service components related to it ends up looking like has yet to settle out, added Pfitzer. "The nature of the beast in the virtual world is there are so many different ways to slice the pie," he said. "I think it will end up looking different from how we imagine it today. Seed will find its solution, banking will find its solution and the EPA and regulators will find theirs. However, it can't be a big brother, and in the end, it needs to make our lives easier. It will levitate the entire industry."

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