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John Deere hands-free guidance system continues its evolution

Early GPS receivers helped chart the course for the modern systems of today.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have revolutionized farming. They’ve gone from an expense that couldn’t always be justified to a crucial part of many farming operations.

In 1992, GPS was accurate to within a few feet, good enough to create crop yield maps, which helped farmers make decisions about drainage, weed control, fertilizer, and seeding. However, the technology was costly.

John Deere saw the potential in these systems. In 1994, we created the Precision Farming Group to look for evolving technologies that could make GPS more accurate and cost effective for providing location information to create yield maps. At that time, no one had proven that GPS could be used for vehicle guidance.

Soon after, a research effort by the John Deere Product Engineering Center (PEC) and the Precision Farming group initiated a project with Stanford University, which targeted an end goal of developing an autonomous tractor controlled by a sophisticated GPS system. John Deere provided Stanford with a tractor modified with electronic valves to control the steering, brakes, and transmission. Stanford outfitted the tractor with the GPS system, an on-board computer, sensors to detect obstacles, and a telemetry system to communicate with a remote base station.

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Cluttered Control

During the development process, prototype control equipment was mounted to the right of the operator's station inside the tractor cab. The equipment included five GPS receivers, an industrial personal computer and a custom interface controller.

Early Testing Success

In early 1997, during a demonstration for John Deere management, the specially-equipped tractor made perfectly straight beds with an accuracy of one inch, raised and lowered an implement, and turned, all with no operator on-board.

Another test proved the tractor’s ability to till a field without damaging buried irrigation tape. After this demonstration, the team knew the technology would significantly reduce costs and labor requirements.

At the same time, the Precision Farming group teamed with the PEC’s Advanced Tractor Engineering Group to create a plan for automating steering for not only tractors, but all other platforms. While it was possible to program a tractor to perform tasks the tractor still needed an operator.

AutoTrac™ is born

A late-1997 prototype demonstrated how a tractor could automatically steer on a straight line entered by an operator. Known today as AutoTrac, this guidance system is used on many of our self-propelled products.  A key finding of this early work was a need to develop a new GPS receiver capable of supporting the accuracy that a vehicle guidance system needed to satisfy a global customer base from both a cost and performance basis.

In 1999, the Stanford-developed system was refined to be more compact and user-friendly. To calm concerns about the system’s ability to plant and later cultivate the same ground, an Iowa cooperator, used the system to plant 250 acres of corn and drill 250 acres of soybeans. Weeks later, when he drove the tractor into his fields to cultivate the standing crops, he engaged the automated steering system. The tractor precisely followed the same rows that were planted weeks earlier.

During the last 20 years, the application of GPS to farm equipment led a revolution in agricultural systems.”

—Terry Pickett

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StarFire™ Receiver

Today's John Deere StarFire 3000 Receiver is a 66-channel, multi-frequency, differential Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver. When used in conjunction with other John Deere components, producers can take advantage of hands-free steering while operating equipment that includes tractors and combines.

Guidance system evolution continues

“During the last 20 years, the application of GPS to farm equipment led a revolution in agricultural systems,” said Terry Pickett, manager of advanced engineering at John Deere Intelligent Solutions group, and one of the original members of the Precision Farming Group. “It has enabled products such as yield mapping; variable rate application of fertilizer, chemicals, and seeds; automated record keeping; and automated steering. These systems could ultimately enable completely autonomous operation of vehicles.”

John Deere AutoTrac™ went into production in 2002. The guidance system has become so popular that today 60 to 70% of the crop acreage in North America is farmed using AutoTrac or similar systems. In Australia, that number exceeds 90%.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recently showed interest in learning more about the original GPS receivers. Peter Liebhold, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Work and Industry, called the original Deere GPS receiver the “steel plow of the 20th Century.”

Bob Mayfield contributed to this story.

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John Deere hands-free guidance system continues its evolution

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