Precision agriculture grows with RTK

Precision agriculture — the practice of optimizing inputs of seed, water, and fertilizers while maximizing yields by mapping variations in soil characteristics and guiding machinery accordingly — began in the United States in the early 1980s and has been growing steadily. Key components include soil mapping based on sampling and remote sensing, proximal sensing of soils and crops, variable rate irrigation and variable rate spraying of fertilizers and herbicides, and automatic tractor navigation.

“GNSS-based guidance is probably the most highly adopted precision ag technology, followed by variable rate and section control,” said John Fulton, associate professor at The Ohio State University. “I suspect that somewhere around 40% of those GNSS receivers use RTK-level corrections — which provide sub-inch accuracy — and that number is increasing.”

Need for sub-inch accuracy

Water runs downhill, of course, which makes vertical accuracy critical for hydrology. “AgLeader builds a plow to put tile in soil to drain water,” said Bill Cran, AgLeader Technology’s GNSS product specialist. “It might only be 4 inches round; so, if we are off by 2 or 3 inches vertically, that affects where water can run.” To get the best vertical accuracy possible, he recommends farmers install a base station in the field where they are operating.

Sub-inch accuracy also enables farmers to determine where to plant each seed, rather than monitoring planters at the row level. “That may not be a requirement today, but it is certainly coming,” Cran said.

Market demand for RTK in agriculture is increasing, an important factor for drone guidance or machine control, said Gustavo Lopez, market access manager at Septentrio. “The robots are very close to the crops. When small robots are working in a corn field, the corn plants are causing multipath or shadowing GNSS signals,” Lopez said. “You need either a good RTK or GNSS-INS, because if you lose satellite lock you can still coast for a while with an IMU.”

Services and options

AgLeader’s displays have a built-in networked transport of RTCM via internet protocol (NTRIP) client that enables it to connect to NTRIP networks and CORS networks, as well as other free and subscription-based networks. “That allows us to get RTK from the internet for customers that want to go that route,” Cran said. Alternatively, the company offers NovAtel GPS receivers, including Satel- or Freewave-based RTK options with 400 MHz and 900 MHz radio options that can communicate with a similar base station. This spring, it will begin to offer NovAtel’s TerraStar-X service. “We are calling that ‘RTK from the sky,’” Cran said. “The expectation is sub-inch accuracy, with a convergence time of less than one minute. Many of our customers and dealers are very excited about that option.”

Septentrio’s GNSS modules for agriculture are used mostly in mapping drones, Lopez said. The modules mitigate interference and spoofing. “We have also been quite successful in robotics for agriculture,” Lopez said. Septentrio is working closely with the French agriculture robotics company Naïo Technologies, which integrates its robots with Septentrio’s smart antenna GNSS products, providing a full RTK solution as well as autonomy.

For areas without RTK networks, some farmers buy and install Septentrio base stations that provide corrections to their robots or UAVs. Septentrio provides agricultural mapping software for post-processing data gathered without RTK. Also on offer are L-band receivers — while not as accurate as a local RTK network and possibly with higher convergence time, the relative accuracy of L-band corrections is more than good enough for many ag robots, Lopez explained.