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Seirrowon full interview

January 19, 2024  - By
Image: Seirrowon

Image: Seirrowon

I asked Jason O’Flanagan, co-founder and CEO of Seirrowon Labs — which specializes in robotic vehicle control, electronics hardware and firmware development — about the company’s collaboration with u-blox on precision agriculture.

What is your background and your company’s origin story?

I’ve been doing precision agriculture for 25 years. I started with Beeline, which was the first company to do automated steering of agricultural equipment, late in the last millennium. I worked for many of the big OEMs, including Kubota and AGCO. I saw an opportunity for GNSS solutions and products. Obviously, there’s a lot of competition there, but we wanted to focus on fixed row crops and orchards because GNSS does not work well in an urban canyon-type scenario. So, there was a niche there for us to jump on.

Were you the company’s co-founder?

Yes, I am one of the company’s co-founders. The company’s name, Seirrowon, is actually “no worries” spelled backward.

I know that you’re working with u-blox.

We’re using both hardware and services products from u-blox. We’re using both their normal RTK receiver and their sensor fusion GNSS receiver. We started looking at u-blox, NovAtel, Trimble and Septentrio. However, we settled on u-blox as its mix of services and hardware were the best suited to our business model. They provide a fully unlocked, fully functional receiver out of the gate.

In the fixed crop, orchard situation, having as many satellites as possible really helps with your position. So, from a hardware standpoint, it was a perfect solution for us. It allowed us to track up to 85 satellites (two channels each) at a time in adverse conditions. Their sensor fusion version, which is their ZED-F9R, allowed us to fill in the gaps when the GNSS became unusable under the tree foliage. The SL LITE is a generic RTK receiver and the SL LITE-R includes sensor fusion and the SL Pro uses their L band receiver with the sensor fusion module.

What value do you add to u-blox’s modules?

All they give us is the raw GNSS. We add some IP functionality and support. U-blox outputs its data in a certain format, which is not really applicable to the ag industry. So, we map out the data to get it in the right format that will work for a lot of the equipment that’s in the marketplace.
Second, we added a support server to it so that it backs up its settings to a remote server. So, if customers go down, we can flash their replacement receiver and overnight them back to them. The customers are also able to turn on remote support where we can see the data from the receiver and diagnose issues remotely. Our dealers have the same access.

We’ve added a support mechanism into our hardware that allows for better remote support without having to wait hours for someone to get to the field or diagnose an issue. We’ve also added remote updating for support and software. So, the customer can update and add new features remotely without us having to send someone out to do that.

Basically, what ag uses violates several of the NMEA conventions. For example, NMEA limits the number of satellite outputs to show 12, but in the ag world all GNSS receivers output the actual number of satellites, using the correction in the NMEA 183 message.

How does the NMEA data format differ from what’s need in agriculture?

Raw GNSS is not sufficient for an active moving solution. Regardless of what GNSS supplier we ultimately chose, the solution provided in GNSS via raw NMEA was not suitable for autonomous or mapping applications by itself. We spent a great deal of time tweaking our output to be best solution possible. This included adjusting for time, terrain and movement. Senor Fusion introduced its own unique issues that we worked through to create the best working solutions. I have spoken to several companies that tried to implement GNSS solutions expecting the raw modules and boards to work out of the box and have been left with a bad taste in their mouth.

In general terms the NMEA 0183 Standards for GGA and VTG don’t have the accuracy required for RTK/PPP performance without violating the length of string limit. We added some additional information to the GGA message to help diagnose issues with performance without needing extra logs and data to see performance. While this does not meet the NMEA 0183 spec it is mostly ignored by Ag equipment downstream. We are currently working with the AgGateway Organization to better use the NMEA spec for use in agricultural applications.

Who stores, aggregates and analyzes the data collected?

We’re not actually taking any position data. We’re just taking GNSS performance information, and the customer must opt in for that. So, it’s defaulted off; if the customer turns it on, it means that we get a complete set of their settings backed up to a server that we own. We have a server with a backup server. So, it comes to our server, and it’s just a just a general setting information that we’re using, and some performance information on satellite tracking, and other things that help us diagnose issues with the receiver. It’s not performance information as far as their location or how they use the receiver. It’s more diagnostic information only.

What is involved in installing your equipment on tractors, combines, sprayers, and so forth? What kind of support do you provide? I assume that you’re brand-agnostic.

We designed our receiver so that anyone can install it. We took a lot of the complications out of it. We use industry standard Deutsch connectors and our device’s user interface is HTML. So, you can use any smartphone or laptop or any device that has WiFi in it to set up the device. There’s no special software required, there are no special cables; you just connect to it as if were a hotspot. You can actually set it up completely from there.
We’ve simplified everything to make sure that users don’t need a degree in GNSS or in engineering to install the receiver. It’s very straightforward. It has several pre-configured profiles within it that allow you to take a generic setup and say, “Hey, I’m putting you here,” so it will default to all the correct settings. We really want to make it as simple and straightforward as possible.

How does it interface with the machine’s steering control?

To interface with the vehicle, we use standard NMEA 0183. We have all the hardware for NMEA 2000 CANBUS but that will come in early 2024.

So, typically, growers just buy the device and have one of their team members put it on?

We normally sell through dealers and OEMs. They incorporate it into their solution. For example one of our dealers uses a system called Weedit. Basically, the distributor incorporates that receiver into each scenario that they have. They must record all that information for EPA in California, so they know exactly what chemicals they put where. So, GPS becomes incredibly important within those orchards to know exactly where the chemical was applied, because they must submit that information.

So, the dealer does the integration onto the machine?

The OEM. However, it is available as a drop-in replacement for any of the old legacy receivers such as Raven receivers that fail over time and some of the other older equipment. So, a general customer that uses Raven equipment can put our receiver in to replace it. I’m just using Raven in this example because it’s a US company that has basically disappeared.

So, it’s not factory-installed and it’s not usually installed by the user, but the dealership put it onto a machine before selling it?

We have dealers and distributors, but it can be installed by an end user as a replacement for a failed old piece of equipment.

Is any of our equipment factory-installed?

No. Not with the big guys anyway. They’re all tied up with their own GNSS at the moment. AGCO is in a pending joint venture with Trimble, CNH Industrial has bought Hemisphere GNSS and Deere has its own offering. So, the big guys all have their own GNSS solutions for now.
The consolidation in the industry is very interesting. I find it curious that in some of the mergers and joint ventures are combinations where both parties already have similar offerings.

Perhaps it’s still evolving.

It sounds like it’s still in the early phases of agreement.

What is the typical use case for your technology?

We have a generalized solution, that would be equivalent to, say, a SMART7 from NovAtel. It’s designed for row crop work out in the field and functionality within the standard operations that you get for GNSS receivers within agriculture. Our offering includes the LITE, which is a generic RTK receiver, and the LITE-R and PRO, which use active sensor fusion to allow us to function better in orchards and fixed crops that have obstructions to the sky.

I’m concentrating on the orchards and fixed crop market because none of the main OEMs that are out there doing GNSS are taking any time with that market, so that’s where we see our niche.

I looked after all the North American support and product direction when I was at AGCO and there was nothing more frustrating than having a product that was complicated to use, difficult to set up, and required multiple people to touch it to make it work. With that in mind, we developed our products to be very simple, very straightforward, able to diagnose most of their problems by themselves, and as functional as possible without having to have someone go out and spend time on diagnosing issues. Our devices are intelligent enough to do that. While generating our product, and putting it into the marketplace, we have spent a lot of time thinking about how to support our customers by avoiding complications and downstream issues.

What else differentiates your company from your competitors?

We have PPP correction services from both satellites from the Internet — similar to services provided by Trimble and NovAtel. However, the industry standard is to only offer a three-month or 12-month subscription, while we offer it monthly. So, you can actually activate it with a phone on the device, purchase a one-month subscription and just use it in the months that you need it. So, a farmer who needs it for only two months in the spring and three months in the fall can pay for only those months instead of having to pay for the whole year. We’re trying to make it as usable and as targeted toward farmers as possible. Through Pointperfect from Ublox. We sell this under our brand name of Flat Earth PPP. (We thought this was a funny name that makes fun of the flat earther movement given that GNSS works because the world is a sphere.)

What else distinguishes your products?

Our receivers are completely unlocked and ready to go out of the gate, without nickel and diming customers or holding features back from them. When they pay for the system, they get everything. If you are going to unlock a feature on a NovAtel or Trimble receiver, you have to get back to the dealership, they then have to use some e-commerce system to purchase that Auth code, then they either give the customer this huge, 64-character code, or someone has to come out and make that change. We don’t have to do any of that. Everything’s unlocked and ready to go.
Our use case is focused on a low profile, a small footprint, and a ruggedized enclosure. We came up with a unique design of antenna that resulted in reduced size without losing any performance. As a result, our receiver is only 35mm tall, 100mm wide and 180mm long. We have filed a patent on this unique design. We also designed it for most agricultural environments by having protection on all IO and the ability to be powered from 9-36V to meet the requirements of both US and European agricultural applications.

Because of the low-profile requirement, we needed a receiver module that is mounted to the board directly instead of a separate receiver board that would have made the enclosure taller.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Latest News, Machine Control/Ag

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.