Machines That Call Home

January 12, 2010 06:00 PM


It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your tractor is? It may seem like a question more applicable to a teenager than to farm equipment, but as machinery fleets grow bigger and equipment moves farther from home, fleet tracking and fuel management are keys to efficiency.

New technology called telematics allows in-the-field equipment to wirelessly transmit data to a home base or another field communication device. For the first time, farm managers can monitor machine locations around the clock and gather data on fuel use and equipment hours to cut operating costs.

"We see huge benefits with this technology for the farm manager who has lots of equipment running in different directions,” says Nick Chenoweth, sales and service manager for Golden Rule Inc., a John Deere dealership in Johnson, Kan. Chenoweth uses John Deere's JDLink telematic system to manage fleets for several customers.

"The technology tracks machine efficiency, which can save up to 10% in fuel costs for our customers,” Chenoweth says.

Telematics is common in parts of Europe. Now, several precision ag manufacturers, including John Deere, AGCO, AutoFarm and Ag Leader Technology, are rolling out applications for telematic
technology in the U.S. market.

How It Works. Most telematic systems consist of a machine-installed hardware data logger and GPS technology. Via a Web site, the system wirelessly sends instructions to the machine data logger. The unit then monitors and logs the requested parameters, explains Aaron Bartholomay, product development marketing represen-tative with John Deere Intelligent Vehicle Systems.

The JDLink system wirelessly transfers data collected from the machine and GPS locations to a server. The data is then processed and made available on a secure Web site, Bartholomay says. "The system is Web-based, so farmers can access it anywhere,” he adds.

Telematics offers the ability to remotely watch machine functions and collect a variety of productivity, performance and location data.

"The technology helps farmers answer the questions they want to know about their equipment,” says Harlan Little, AGCO technology marketing specialist. AgCommand, AGCO's telematics technology, is available on 2010 model combines and will be expanded to include field installation on TerraGators and RoGators and then tractors and factory installation.

Questions about true fuel burn per hour and actual time in the field can be answered with real data gathered from each machine, Little says. Farmers can also monitor why one tractor is consistently getting better fuel efficiency than another tractor, he adds.

Maintenance Tracking. The technology is especially helpful for maintenance tracking, Bartholomay says. Because the server is constantly collecting hours from a machine, JDLink offers the ability to set up a profile that notifies the manager when maintenance is due.

"This reduces the arduous task of having to go out to each machine and collect hours by hand,” Bartholomay says.

From a diagnostic standpoint, each JDLink Ultimate–enabled machine has a special code. When a dealer receives a text message that a machine needs maintenance, there is a code attached that defines the equipment that needs to be accessed. The code includes directions to the machine's location, so the dealer can go to the machine without calling the owner.

"This is helpful when we need to get to a machine quickly and we can't get hold of the manager,” says Golden Rule's Chenoweth.

With its new ParaDyme system, AutoFarm now offers telematics through its Central Business System, which is also available with Ag Leader products. Currently, the system supports two services: remote service and one-step RTK (real-time kinematic) connection.

"Our reseller service plan is a tool for our customers to get prompt service and for our dealers to be able to service more customers through peak usage periods,” says Deane Malott, AutoFarm director of marketing. From the field, the operator can contact the dealer for help. Then, the dealer can remotely access the ParaDyme system to repair the problem or pinpoint the machine's location if a technician needs to be dispatched.

RTK ReadyConnect uses a network of 50 cellular service providers to tap into a DOT CORS network and give RTK accuracy without a base station. The usage plans are activated for 30-day periods, so farmers only pay for the service when they are in the field.

AutoFarm plans to introduce additional services, including instant software updates, data transfers, machine interface and vehicle tracking, with its platform.

Equipment Costs Per Acre. Telematics is ideal for farmers who are interested in tracking equipment costs per acre.

JDLink, for example, allows the manager to set parameters to monitor idle time, working time and transport time. The manager can plug those hours into spreadsheets to analyze fuel use and efficiency.

With performance logs, managers can get a better idea of which machines are incurring the most hours and which are likely to depreciate more quickly.

The technology is also beneficial for operator training, Bartholomay says. "If the manager notices a certain operator idles a machine more often than another, the operator can be instructed on how idling burns fuel and then trained on how to run the machine more efficiently,” he explains.

"Most operators want to do good work, and this technology allows their efficiency to be recorded for managers to see,” adds AGCO's Little. Managers can use the data to establish employee recognition and achievement goals.

Tractors on Curfew.
Another benefit of telematic technology is equipment security. Farmers can establish what is called a geofence, which marks perimeters for where a machine can travel. The system notifies the manager if a machine leaves an established perimeter area.

The perimeter also can be set up so that a manager is notified if a machine enters a restricted field or area, Bartholomay says.

Another feature is curfew alert, which notifies the manager if a machine is started during established downtime hours. "This is a great tool for theft protection,” he adds.

Managers can set the system to notify them by text message, e-mail or on the Web site.
Infrastructure in Place. Because telematics is based off of cell phone technology, the coverage across North America is pretty good, Bartholomay says.

"There are pockets in some rural areas where reception is bad, but the combination of a high-gain antennae and storing data until it can be automatically transferred helps,” he says.

If you happen to be in an area where there is no cell coverage, AGCO's system has the ability to record up to 50 running hours of information, Little says. The system will record a snapshot of the machine once every minute. The report will be issued when the machine returns to the coverage area.

There will be expected bumps in the road to telematic adoption, but the major equipment manufacturers agree that the future is now for automated machine monitoring.

AgCommand: AGCO's telematics technology, called AgCommand, has been released on 2010 model combines. The product offering will be expanded to include field installation on TerraGators and RoGators in the first quarter of 2010 with tractors and factory installation to follow later in the year.

JDLink: John Deere's JDLink system offers two levels of telematic technology: 1) Select, which works for all makes and models, and 2) Ultimate, which is geared for John Deere machines, specifically the 6000, 7000, 8000 and 9000 Series tractors; the new 8R Series; and the 7000 and 7050 self-propelled forage harvesters.

ParaDyme and the Central Business System: AutoFarm (and its partner Ag Leader Technology) plans to extend its capabilities with the system, but for now it offers two services: remote dealer support and RTK ReadyConnect, which can be activated from the tractor cab.

Top Producer, January 2010

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