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Buyer's guide: Five guidance systems for farmers on a budget

Ranging from entry level app-based guidance systems, to full RTK systems with automated steering, there is a wide range of options when it comes to tractor guidance.

 

Richard Bradley takes a look at several entry-level options.

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Simple guidance systems are ideally suited to application tasks such as fertiliser spreading and spraying.

When it comes to applying sprays and fertiliser, accurate operation is key as products often carry a high price-tag.

 

Traditionally, operators would rely on good judgement and ‘rack of the eye’ to set distance between runs and maintain straight paths. Foam bout markers (blobbers) can offer a certain level of accuracy, as fertiliser overlap can be roughly calculated. While these systems have proved effective over the years, as farms increase in size and product prices rise, the potential effects of over-applying can be felt more prominently.

 

With this in mind, farmers are increasingly looking toward guidance-based and automated steering systems, which have been common-practice in contractor’s machines for a number of years. While top-spec systems with single centimetre accuracy via RTK and integrated auto-steering can extend to five-figure sums, there are a number of entry-level systems available, which offer reasonable levels of accuracy for application equipment.

 

We take a look over some of the options available for less than £1,500.

Agricision onTrak

Downloaded from the Apples App Store, onTrak is controlled via Bluetooth connection to an iPad or iPhone.

Offering something a little different, Agricision has come up with an IOS operated guidance system.

 

Using a combined light bar and receiver, the onTrak device does not require any wires to be installed, and thanks to an on-board battery, no power connections are required either. The waterproof unit is mounted to the tractor’s bonnet via four magnetic pads – a template and magnets are supplied to fit to tractors with plastic bonnets.

 

Setting up machine width and monitoring of working progress is done on your iPad or iPhone via a free IOS app, meaning you are able to utilise a decent touch screen. Connection from the receiver to your Apple controller is made via Bluetooth.

 

The firm says the system is designed to be quick and simple to use, and offers a cost-effective solution for farmers who do not require expensive auto-steering systems, but can benefit from increased accuracy with guidance.

Combined light bar-receiver mounts on the tractor's bonnet in the operator's line of sight.

Positioning the light bar on the bonnet puts it in the operator’s line of sight, without the operator having to shift his focus from a screen in the cab to the field ahead, says the firm. Moving the receiver closer to the front wheels should also offer quicker response to steering movement.

 

Signals to the receiver are obtained from any freely available satellite, meaning there are no subscription charges, and can provide 20cm pass-to-pass accuracy. The on-board battery offers 24 hours operating time and is rechargeable via a USB cable. Agricision says the system can easily be moved between tractors, as and when tasks demand.

 

Retail price for the system is £675 plus VAT. If you do not already own an iPad or iPhone, you will have to purchase one, which could take overall price up to the £1,000 mark.

 

Topcon X14

Topcon's X14 controller features a touchscreen and can be upgraded to RTK accuracy and to run its retro-fit auto steering system.

At the bottom end of US manufacturer Topcon’s precision farming display offering is its X14 controller, available in the UK through LH Agro.

 

Featuring a 10.9cm (4.3inch) colour touch-screen, the X14 comes as standard with the firm’s SGR-1 receiver, offering 20-30cm pass-to-pass accuracy, depending on signal strength. The receiver mounts to the tractor’s cab roof, and requires a wiring harness to connect the receiver to the display. Available as an optional upgrade, the firm’s AGI-4 receiver offers a 2cm pass-to-pass accuracy, via a subscription to RTK.

 

The display hosts all navigation and setting menus, with shortcut buttons around the screen. Four pre-set guidance modes are featured, which allow the system to follow straight A-B lines, repeatable curves, pivot around a centre axis, and Guidelock, which the firm says is suited to odd-shaped fields as it allows you to set straight A-B lines, or follow the contours from headlands.

 

Once in working mode, a light bar is displayed on the screen to indicate position of the next run, and a separate readout indicates distance from the line.

 

At a price of £1,425 for the display, receiver, wiring harness and in-cab mount, the Topcon unit carries a higher price tag than some other units here. However, the firm says its X14 starts out at an entry-level system, and can grow with your precision needs, as it is compatible with the firm’s range of auto-steering systems and affords up to 2cm accuracy, signal and subscription dependant.

The firm's SI-21 light bar can be added to provide guidance in the operator's line of sight.

The firm adds the X14 also has the capability to run variable rate and section control systems, with an optional ECU controller fitted.

 

To give a better heads-up display of guidance, a separate light bar can be added to the system. The firm says the bar features a slim design, allowing it to be positioned in the driver’s line of sight, so you do not have to look down at your main-screen to keep on track. LED lights indicate the next contour line and an LCD display is used to indicate distance from the line.

 

Additional SI-21 light bar costs £365.

 

Patchwork BlackBox Air

Patchwork's app-based system can work with any compatible Android device.

Based in Monmouthshire, South Wales, BlackBox manufacturers its own range of precision farming displays and controllers.

 

At the entry-level of the firm’s range is its Air system, which connects to GPS signals via an in-cab receiver offering up to 15cm pass-to-pass accuracy. Information is displayed through a compatible Android device, with connection to the device made via Bluetooth. Power to the Air receiver is from a three-pin in-cab plug.

 

To maintain the appearance of BlackBox’s other guidance systems, the Air’s Android-based app is freely available from the Google Play store, and lays out information just as it is on the firm’s higher-spec displays.

12 volt power is required to the Air receiver, with connection to the Android device made via Bluetooth.

Inputting machine settings, such as working width and required overlap are done through the app, which displays a light-bar along the top of the screen to indicate guidance-line position, with a field view display and shortcut functions down either side. Along the bottom of the screen is a virtual dash, which displays information such as forward speed, area worked, and distance from guidance-line.

 

Base-spec Air boxes offer a number of guidance path formats, area measurement, and the ability to create and store fields for future use or record keeping. As an option, the firm offers a software upgrade to boost available functions. Called Air+, the system gains the ability to guide the tractor at headlands, warns the user when approaching headlands, and automatically activates coverage logging for greater accuracy.

 

The firm supplies the receiver allowing you to use your own compatible Android device. As an option the firm can also supply a seven-inch touch screen tablet to run the app.

 

Retail price for the standard receiver is £700, with the Air+ costing £900. Seven-inch tablet costs £100 on top of the receiver.

 

For additional functionality, the firm offers its BlackBox Eco+ system. Using an ‘all in one’ design, the Eco+ has an integrated seven-inch touch screen and GPS receiver, again offering up to 15cm pass-to-pass accuracy. The firm says the Eco+ benefits from slope compensation for greater accuracy, and is water and dust proof. Retail price for the Eco+ is £1,250.

 

Trimble EZ-Guide 250

Trimble's EZ-Guide 250 features large soft keys, colour display and LED light bar.

Through distributor AS Communications, US firm Trimble’s range of precision farming products are available in the UK.

 

Offering an upgradable entry-level system, Trimble’s EZ-Guide 250 sits at the bottom of the firm’s controller range.

 

The 250’s chunky box features a 10.9cm (4.3 inch) colour display, which is surrounded by six buttons to navigate menus, monitor information and engage coverage mapping. Along the top of the screen is a strip of 15 LED lights, which are used to indicate position of next A-B line. Red LEDs illuminate to indicate position of the next line, with three green LEDs used to indicate when on the correct path.

 

As standard the unit comes with a patch antenna, offering sub-metre pass-to-pass accuracy, or the Ag15 antenna is available as an option, offering 15-30cm accuracy, depending on signal quality. Patch antenna features a slim cable, so could be quickly installed and run through a door or window seal, whereas Ag15 antenna requires a larger cable, which may require routing through the cab roof.

The firm's EZ-Steer systems can be retro-fitted to allow auto steering.

Six guidance paths can be used, including centre pivoting, straight A-B line, identical curves and a freeform function, which allows a headland to be recorded and a number of different A-B lines to be used or identical curves to be used. Via two separate operating levels, basic or advanced, the 250 can be used as a quick-start system, or used in advanced mode to save fields for future use and for record keeping, for example.

 

When specified with the Ag15 antenna, the EZ-Guide 250 costs £1,495 plus VAT.

 

Similar to Topcon’s unit, the Trimble can be specced up with the firm’s EZ-Steer system, which uses a motor on the tractor’s steering wheel to more accurately follow contour lines. The additional system including installation costs £2,400 plus VAT, and the firm says this can be easily removed or swapped between vehicles where required.

 

Sixty-5 Grass-Guide

Using hardware already readily available on the market, Sixty-5’s Grass Guide offers a simple guidance system. Operated via app-based Android software, the Grass Guide software was developed in-house from its base in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

 

Software is uploaded onto a seven-inch Samsung touch screen tablet which is supplied along with a NovAtel AG-Star GPS receiver. Communication between the two units is possible via Bluetooth and, with the receiver mounted to the tractor’s roof, a connection to the tractor’s 12 volt circuit is required. With adequate signal strength, the NovAtel receiver offers 12-20cm pass-to-pass accuracy.

Grass Guide displays areas of the field covered and projects a virtual path on the screen where you are heading.

The firm says thanks to its wireless connectivity, the system can be easily moved between machines.

 

Parameters and settings such as working width and overlap are set through the screen, and once stored, only one button is required to start a new field, job or engage coverage mapping. In working mode, the screen features a banner along the top which displays information such as forward speed and area worked. Tabs to display a birds-eye view and overview of the area worked, and one to begin a new field are also featured.

 

The home screen features a virtual boom to indicate the area being worked and rather than the conventional light-bar as used by most other firms, the Grass Guide projects a virtual path onto the screen where you are currently heading.

 

While this does not give you a distance to your previous path to match up working width, once you have lined the two paths up it should prevent you from swerving constantly down the field to maintain the ideal travel path as is often the case when following a light bar.

 

Retail price for the system is £1,495, and a suction-cup holder is supplied with the display.

 

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