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Module Telematics Gateway:  An Overlooked Interim Step to Autonomous Agriculture

22 Nov 2022  •  Erin Hightower

Agricultural drones and self-driving tractors are just a couple of examples of innovations that could potentially transform farming in the years ahead. While we are seeing some of these technologies in the field today, widespread adoption remains in the near future. But that doesn’t mean farmers can’t start today taking advantage of these innovative technologies to reap the benefits of reducing labor needs and costs.

Think about the adoption of video phone calls – there were hundreds of steps involved between the debut of the “picture phone” in 1970 and today’s FaceTime or Zoom meeting. We first had to accept mobile phone technology. Then came the addition of cameras in our phones, and, ultimately, it took a pandemic for everyone to really embrace video calls. In a similar way, the next evolution of farming technology will require lots of smaller steps from where we are today.

Module Telematics Gateway (MTG) systems, like JDLink, is a step toward that distant future of autonomy, offering many benefits at little to no cost to farmers depending on the machine.   

Monitor multiple fields and machines

Until scientists perfect that cloning machine, none of us can be in all places at the same time. Thankfully, there are some solutions ready today that can help farmers keep a watchful eye on what’s happening across many fields – no cloning needed.

With an integrated MTG, farmers can check fieldwork in real-time and in multiple locations. Farmers can now remotely view the tractor’s display across their entire fleet of machines with certain configurations. For each tractor, you can see the percentage of fieldwork completed, machine speed, and more. This information guides decisions and communication with operators to heighten efficiency. For example, I worked with a bell pepper and squash grower recently who uses this technology to check each field’s harvest percentage. He coordinated trucks transporting produce to storage and reduced trucking delays allowing trucks to move onto fields that needed them the most.

Monitor quality of work

In 2021, I visited an onion grower who learned how to monitor equipment and use its data to forecast seed planting quality. Imagine our surprise when we used the remote display function to do a check-in with a tractor only to find out that the onions were being planted too deep because the crop was configured as corn instead of onions. After several phone calls with the operator, they were able to manage the planter in real time and save a possible year's worth of crop failure.

While it is important to keep managing different tasks as they happen — especially in the planting season— it can be helpful to double-check work in-between tasks or at the end of the day in a multi-cropping operation. During seeding and harvesting when everyone is on a hectic schedule, MTGs help you to wirelessly monitor work quality and settings from across the field.

Besides monitoring usage data, telematics can manage warranty or lease hours, and build a deeper understanding of what your operators may need. I recently met with a custom harvest operator for multiple large farms.  When he monitored his equipment usage, he discovered that one of his largest customers forced him to idle 10% longer on the days that he was on their farm as compared to other farms due to a lack of bank-out trucks.  Armed with data and information, the custom harvester had a powerful negotiating tool to show they needed more back-out trucks to transport loads and keep him harvesting crops.

Monitor location of equipment

In the spring of 2001, I had a coworker suffer from heat stroke in a field, which none of us were aware of at the time. By grace, he could sit in the shade of the tractor to manage his symptoms until early evening when it quickly started to cool down. A possibly fatal situation was skirted only because of luck and the time of year. This dangerous situation could have been avoided by knowing where equipment is at any given time. Not only is this an asset for work management, but also for worker management.  With a MTG we would have been able to notice it was not moving and gone to check on him.

Monitoring location can also guard against cross-contamination operations, including organic fields. For example, an orchard manager has worked with me to check his organic and conventional sprayers, using an MTG to ensure that it is not accidentally used in organic blocks.

Farmers can monitor equipment’s location to guard against theft. We had a potato grower who was having issues with his potato trucks going missing in the middle of the night.  We were able to help him install MTGs, adding an alert system when the trucks were turned on during times of the day.  He was able to alert the County Sherriff to catch the thief.

Monitor your farm’s carbon footprint

While the banking carbon credits in farming is still in flux, it can be helpful to think logically about how these types of programs might be implemented.  While carbon capture programs are still being discussed, some initial ideas have also included managing carbon in soils through MTGs. Therefore, it may be important to build an understanding of your farm’s carbon output, and its potential capture.

Farmers can use MTG systems to manage their carbon output through fuel use monitoring including idle time tracking, and feature utilization reports. Also, Auto Track helps reduce the number of passes in the field and increases productivity. MTG systems can help producers to ensure the right amount of fertilizer, pesticides or nutrients are applied to specific crops. For example, producers use their MTGs to view the history for each piece of equipment. Last year we had a vineyard that applied chemicals at night and was concerned with the work quality.  At times, operators can lose track of completed rows, because of the field’s limited visibility. Every morning after spraying, the vineyard manager reviews the sprayer’s tracking data, to double-check each row and decide if any of the rows need a second pass. This can reduce pesticide resistance and increase spray application efficiency and quality.

Implementing MTGs into your growing operation is a small step to take to get to a place where we could leap forward to autonomous or semi-autonomous equipment once we understand how we systems currently work to keep machines running effectively.

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Discover how data management software like JDLink can optimize your operation.

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Article originally published in "Coastal Grower" Magazine.

Erin Hightower

Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 15 years. As an Agronomist at RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner.

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