Is GPS the Emperor's New Clothes?
In the folk tale The Emperor's New Clothes, a child dared to mention the unmentionable. Terry Anderson, Autonomous Tractor Corporation, is also mentioning the unmentionable. Could GPS be the weak link in precision agriculture?
"GPS is being used in ways never intended," said Anderson. "It wasn't meant to be mobile, and it has a number of weak spots. The Crookston, Minn., area was without GPS for three days this past spring when solar flares ionized the atmosphere. Farmers have told me they can't depend on GPS when they get close to buildings or around water towers. If they depend on RTK, they are secondary users. If emergency services need the bandwidth, secondary users are locked out."
Anderson has strong agricultural roots, but he is a relative newcomer to industrial agriculture. However, his credentials give his concerns added validity. The consulting engineer has built his career advising multi-national, non-agricultural companies on the use of technology. Over the past 14 years, he and his 47-person web of technical associates have turned their attention to building a better tractor. Introduced at the 2012 Big Iron Show in Fargo, his prototypes left farmers scratching their heads, but intrigued. More than farmers were intrigued as well.
Still in development, Spirit is a completely autonomous tractor without so much as a driver's seat. Looking like a block on tracks, Spirit is powered by twin 200 horsepower gensets with electric drive wheel motors, 10 computers, sensors galore, touch-pad control screens on either side, redundancy throughout, but no GPS.
"We developed our Area Positioning Systems (APS) using radio beacons," said Anderson. "We use four transponders set around a field with two on the tractor. We've tested the range, and they easily cover a two-mile distance, more than enough for a 2,500-acre field. One set of four static transponders can control up to 16 autonomous units in the same area."
Terry Anderson, Autonomous Tractor Corporation, holds one of the transponders used in a field to create the Area Positioning System (APS), which is an alternative to GPS for precision agriculture. Alternative positioning systems to GPS are not new. Radio and laser combination transponders have been used for 20 years in the North Atlantic to control ships servicing the oil rigs so they don't hit the platforms. Other systems are used in open-pit mining. Anderson is using 150 MHz frequency transponders without lasers. The transponders on the tractor constantly exchange signals with the static transponders for position identification and recording. The computer charged with location constantly compares its position to the positions of the static transponders.