RTK: plow the fields and scatter… precisely

Posted on 16 Nov 2016 by Victoria Fitzgerald

Victoria Fitzgerald let an autonomous tractor do the driving at Ordnance Survey HQ in Southampton.

Writer Bill Bryson once said, “There are only three things that can kill a farmer: lightning, rolling over in a tractor, and old age.”

Well, on a blustery yet gloriously sunny day in October, I shipped down to Ordnance Survey headquarters in Southampton to take a look at a very unique and snazzy piece of farming machinery that is set to make Bryson’s sentiment at least one third untrue.

CNH Industrial brand Case IH is now in partnership with Ordnance Survey - image courtesy of CNH Industrial.
CNH Industrial brand Case IH is now in partnership with Ordnance Survey – image courtesy of CNH Industrial.

The UK’s official mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, and agricultural machinery manufacturer, CNH Industrial, have joined forces to enhance farming efficiency up and down the UK and beyond.

The partnership includes OS Net signal technology, a network of more than 110 base stations which reach all over Great Britain, and into the cab of agricultural machinery from CNH Industrial’s Case IH and New Holland Agriculture brands.

How it works

The OS Net technology allows CNH Industrial to supply ‘real-time kinematic’ (RTK) positioning information, which is integrated into Case IH and New Holland Agriculture farming machinery.

RTK uses measurements from a signal reference station to provide real-time data, which could revolutionise the farming industry by allowing machinery to achieve year-to-year positional accuracy of 2.5cm.

OS CNH PQ - Nov 2016This high level of precision means that several variables can be optimised, e.g. soil conservation, fuel and input (seed/fertiliser) savings, as well as less time spent in the field.

John Downes, CNH Industrial’s precision farming specialist for the UK and Republic of Ireland underlined the extra efficiencies set to be gained by farmers interested in adopting the technology, “The result is a guidance system that provides optimum signal availability no matter what the topography, eliminating the inaccuracy, downtime and stress that can be caused by signal loss.”

The technology is currently in its second phase. CNH Industrial is coordinating the largest single RTK global network in any industry – this currently includes 800 base stations, with an aim to increase this to 1,200 in the EU by the end of this decade.

The farming revolution

As Industry 4.0 grows in prominence across all manufacturing sectors, precision and automation in farming are becoming more important as agriculture strives to be more efficient, economic and environmentally friendly.

Ross Macdonald, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems, at the helm - image courtesy of CNH Industrial.
Ross Macdonald, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems, at the helm – image courtesy of CNH Industrial.

When used for the precise positioning of farm machinery, the OS Net partnership with CNH Industrial increases efficiencies and optimises yields throughout the complete crop cycle of planting, spraying, harvesting and cultivation.

For example, you can plan and manage seed sowing more precisely, creating less waste and reducing costs. It also allows drivers to continue to work with reliable accuracy in poor field or operator conditions.

The total crop area in the UK stood at 6.1m hectares in 2015. If we consider cereals and oilseeds as an example, the UK cereal crop area was approximately 3.1m hectares in 2015 and the area of oilseed crop planted was 670,000 hectares. This totals 3.77m hectares. If all of the UK’s cereal and oilseed were planted manually without RTK, assuming a general industry overlap error of 4%, there would be an overall loss of 70,800 hectares, equivalent to more than 113,000 football pitches.

If, on the other hand, that whole area was planted with RTK, the error decreases to 0.33%, and the total area saved would be 64,959 hectares with total potential savings of over £34m depending upon fuel, seed and fertiliser inputs.

OS CNH PQ2 - Nov 2016Trying a hand

After being suitably boggled by the technology, members of the press filed outside for a glimpse of Case IH machinery in action. I was impressed, particularly as I had the opportunity to clamber aboard.

I hoisted myself up into the spacious cab to join Ross Macdonald, Case IH’s product marketing specialist for the UK and Republic of Ireland, who showed me the ease with which the machine could be programmed.

I asked Macdonald whether stubborn farmers, who are superglued to tradition might react adversely to this sector-changing technology.

“There will always be naysayers,” he said, “with some believing that this sort of machinery will put people out of a job. But in reality, this sort of technology will counterbalance redundant roles by creating newer, better ones,” he explained.

What concerned me was the potential to lose signal, particularly in rural areas, where I have, on more than one occasion, had to guess my way around country roads in the absence of a working satnav.

By working with signals supplied by GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), the network brings together the positioning data supplied not only by GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites, but also by the Russian GLONASS satellite network and the developing Compass (China) and Galileo (Europe) satellite systems.

“No other farm machinery manufacturer is currently able to offer an in-house RTK signal correction service as comprehensive as this. It has complete coverage across mainland Great Britain and full in-house support.

“Users benefit from a network that ensures strong signal availability at all times, enabling them to get the maximum value from their investment in precision farming technology by eliminating the poor accuracy and degraded productivity associated with loss of correction signal,” he added.