Survey Perspectives – Early April 2008

April 3, 2008  - By

RTK Crops Up in Precision Agriculture

Take a look at the major manufacturers of multi-frequency GNSS equipment and the markets they serve. Obviously, surveying is an important market; construction is a major one too. Maybe you’ve noticed that agriculture is also making its way up the food chain, so to speak. Trimble, Topcon, Leica/Novatel, Deere/Navcomm, and Hemisphere GPS are all pursuing the precision agricultural market with RTK-like precision.

The terms “precision agriculture” and “precision farming” have been around for a long time. There are conferences dedicated solely to sharing information on this topic, such as the 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture. The classic precision ag market has been relatively unchanged for the past decade or so. Yes, in the past few years WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) has made a substantial impact with respect to a reliable and convenient source of corrections for one-meter accuracy using GPS, but all in all, one-meter accuracy is what most precision ag users have adapted to.

Stepping back, GPS/GNSS is only one component of the precision agriculture puzzle. Remote sensing (aerial photography/LIDAR), various sensors, and GIS (geographic information systems) software all play a key role in enabling people to record, analyze, and apply data used to make decisions that optimize the output of a particular agricultural area.

There are a few keys areas where GPS/GNSS is used in agriculture, though. These aren’t all-inclusive, but cover significant tasks where GPS has been very beneficial.

  1. Field mapping: there have always been field maps of some sort, whether they were hand-sketched or derived from an aerial photo, but GPS has improved the precision substantially. Not only can one map the perimeter of the field, but also infrastructure such as roads, drain tile, outlets, wells, buildings, etc. The farmer doesn’t necessarily do this, but fertilizer distributors have become GPS-savvy and offer this service.
  2. Yield mapping: as crops are harvested, a GPS receiver connected to a yield monitor sensor records a coordinate along with the yield data. This data is combined and analyzed to create a map of how well different areas of the field are producing.
  3. Guidance: when spreading fertilizer or planting, equipment operators have traditionally used markers such as foam or other visual aids to mark where they’ve been to try and avoid overlap. The assistance of GPS and onboard guidance systems, such as a light bar, can further reduce overlap.

As I mentioned before, for many years precision ag users have settled for one-meter precision. Companies like Hemisphere GPS (formerly CSI Wireless) did very well designing single-frequency GPS receivers for the precision ag market. Hemisphere is also a leading designer of radio beacon (Coast Guard) receivers. Radio beacons, in addition to WAAS, are a free source of corrections for one-meter accuracy. Trimble was also an early supplier of precision ag GPS receivers and related equipment, typically offering single-frequency products like the AG-132.

While the real-time kinematic (RTK) technique has been around since the early 90s, it didn’t gain wide acceptance in the precision ag industry. The accuracy was great, down to approximately 2 cm at the time, but the equipment was clunky. The user had to set up a reference station near the field he was working on. The communication link was complicated, and some types needed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensing. Consequently, there were several potential points of failure. Lastly, the cost for a complete RTK system (base, rover, and radios) was high, upwards of $50,000. It just wasn’t cost-effective.

What is an RTK Network?

It’s an ambiguous term, because it means different things depending on the industry, but essentially the hardware setup is the same no matter which industry we are discussing. An RTK network is a series of dual-frequency reference stations spaced optimally within a region so as to provide RTK corrections to subscribers within that region. Following is an illustration of an RTK network for agriculture in the Ohio area.

All the reference stations are surveyed (more on that below) with respect to one another.

The network subscriber is assigned a primary reference station to use. RTK networks for agriculture are single-baseline solutions; the subscriber can only use one reference station at a time. There is no “network solution” per se, or redundancy like there is in RTK networks used in the surveying and construction industries. Therefore, when a single reference station “goes down,” the subscribers in that area are down also. There is software available from RTK network vendors that allows the administrator to monitor all reference stations via the Internet, but some networks don’t have that feature implemented. In that case the administrator hears about problems when subscribers have problems.

Another major difference between RTK networks for agriculture and RTK networks for surveying and construction is the communication method. The latter primarily use data plans on mobile phones to receive corrections. Either the mobile phone is linked via Bluetooth to the receiver or a cellular modem is built inside the receiver.

RTK networks for agriculture, on the other hand, primarily use spread spectrum radios (900 Mhz band) to transmit corrections to the receiver. The benefit of a spread spectrum radio is that they are free to use and don’t require a license from the FCC to operate. They are limited in their broadcast range, however, which is typically two to three miles. To solve this problem, radio repeaters are used to extend the distance. Depending on the topography, as many as four repeaters may need to be permanently mounted to effectively cover the broadcast range needed, based on the spacing of the reference stations. Even then, there may still be some areas that are not fully covered. In that case, temporary mobile repeaters may be used to provide coverage to that area.

The Wild, Wild West of RTK Networks

Bill Henning, real-time specialist with the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), said it best: the recent explosion of RTK networks is like the Wild, Wild West. They are proliferating so quickly that it’s hard to keep track of them. One of his tasks is to help develop guidelines for RTK network operators, and I think NGS is making inroads into the survey/construction industry with their initiative. People are looking for that sort of guidance with respect to RTK network setup, as well as monitoring for the networks once they become operational.

RTK networks for agriculture seem less structured than in other disciplines, though, and administrators rely more heavily on vendor recommendations. For example, some are based on the ITRF reference frame, while others are based on some version of NAD83. Some networks hire land surveyors to establish their reference station locations, while others do it themselves using NGS’s OPUS program or other methods. Very few, I think, realize the resources available from the NGS, such as the Cooperative CORS program.

Separate Industries, Separate RTK Networks

Even this early in the RTK network game, the duplicity of networks between agriculture and survey/construction is interesting. For example, an RTK network for agriculture can cover the same area as an RTK network for survey/construction. In the state of Georgia, there are several RTK networks for agriculture and several for survey/construction, some of which overlap. In fact, one would think that these folks (ag and survey/construction) would consolidate their efforts. The RTK network equipment is virtually the same. But alas, the manufacturers don’t want this. Why not? To answer that question, just employ the old adage: follow the money.

The fact is that a farmer isn’t going to pay the same RTK network subscription rate that a surveyor or construction company will. The numbers are vastly different. The typical subscription rate for access to an agricultural RTK Network is $1,300 to $1,500 per unit per year. Subscription rates for access to a survey/construction RTK network are as high as $4,500 per unit per year.

Some industry folks say that aggressive subscription pricing is the reason RTK networks in the agriculture market have expanded rapidly in the past few years. A farm is very hesitant to pay $4,500 annually when they can select a service like OmniSTAR and pay $1,500 annually.

Again, there are differences between the networks used in agriculture and those in survey/construction; most, if not all, are software-related. RTK networks for survey/construction offer a true networked solution, where several reference stations are used to compute a correction, whereas RTK networks for ag are single-baseline solutions, like users would normally set up as a base rover for their own use.

Others at the Party

Of course, OmniSTAR (HP/XP),Deere (Starfire), and Novariant (AutoFarm) offer a GPS-based solution in the precision ag industry. They are not pure-play RTK solutions like RTK networks are, although they do have RTK capability. True RTK networks are capable of constantly delivering ~2 cm accuracy day-in and day-out. These folks going after the precision ag market offer decimeter-level services primarily (1 decimeter being the equivalent of 10 cm), and then RTK solutions when needed.

It will be interesting to see how pure-play RTK players respond as RTK networks for agriculture continue to expand … which they most certainly will.

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