Tad Newman, who is John Deere’s technical lead – Positioning & Receivers, Intelligent Solutions Group, recently had what even for a Californian was an unusual commute — he went to work in Antarctica.
There, no‑till means NO TILL — there’s no agriculture whatsoever on the land mass covered by a mile-thick layer of ice — but Newman plays a central role in ensuring equipment on Earth’s southernmost continent and at other outposts around the globe will continue to make precision agriculture possible.
“When our reference site in Antarctica came up for a refresh,” Tad Newman recalled, “I said, ‘If there’s any way somebody can actually go there in person, let it be me.’”
He got his wish. But the 20,000-mile trip from his office in Torrance, California, to the Norway-owned Troll Research Station on Antarctica, with stops in Amsterdam and Johannesburg, actually began 20 years ago.
Newman was working as a technician for a small company called NavCom. His job was to test the GPS receivers they built in-house. In the early days of precise positioning, John Deere licensed NavCom equipment to install in John Deere-branded GPS receivers. Then in 1999, John Deere purchased Torrance-based NavCom.
“I was pretty firmly inside the production receiver test group,” said Newman, “so I understood Deere’s concept and I could see where it was going.”
It was going toward greater precision. Precision that would eventually help guide Deere customers’ tractors, combines, and other equipment toward increased crop yield, efficiency, and profitability.
Precision in the late 1990s was “very, very bad,” Newman said. “No one corrected data from the GPS and GLONASS positioning satellites orbiting the earth. Consequently, accuracy was only within 5 to 10 meters.”
For a sailor in the middle of a vast ocean, that was remarkable. But for precision ag?
“Utterly useless,” Newman said. “Basically, standard GPS involves triangulating. But the problem is that the signals are bent a little, refracted through the atmosphere, so that introduces errors.”
These errors were compounded by the imperfectly elliptical orbits of satellites, so by the time a signal reached a receiver on the ground, it was really just an approximation.
Correcting those errors and in the process bringing farmers closer to their exact location has taken Newman to all seven continents.
Increasing Data Points to Increase Accuracy
By measuring the distance to satellites from multiple sources on the ground, errors in accuracy can be reduced. That is precisely what the Intelligent Solutions Group’s (ISG) ground network of global reference sites does.
Deere maintains more than 60 of these sites.
The more we can spread out sites around the globe, the more we can refine the positioning information we give to our customers.”
The reference sites relay those range measurements to Deere’s two processing centers. Those centers — one in California and the other in Illinois — take all of the different views of the satellite and generate corrected coordinates for that satellite. Then Newman’s team sends the correction information to a communications satellite, which then downlinks it to the end-users’ John Deere StarFire receivers, which helps farmers precisely plant and raise their crops.
“The more reference sites that see the satellite,” Newman said, “the more accurately we can establish a customer’s location.”
Today, Deere delivers accuracy of 3–5 centimeters, Newman noted. Maintaining that level of accuracy is why the reference sites are so important.
Between surveys, installs, refreshes, and other site maintenance jobs, Newman has racked up about 125 site visits. And now that he’s been to Antarctica, he’s worked on at least one reference site on every continent.
“I’ve worked on a site that’s closer to the North Pole than our site in Antarctica is to the South Pole,” said Newman.
But hostile climates aren’t the only obstacles.
“We just got done with a months-long ordeal getting our receiver certified to operate in South Korea,” Newman said. “And China and Russia are leery about installations that ‘talk’ with satellites, so we’re blocked from expanding our network into those countries.”
Newman even worked on a site in Mongolia, a remote country landlocked between Russia on its northern border and China to the south.
A reference site requires only about 16 square feet of open space and a reliable power source, so typically Newman first searches for a John Deere dealer near a desirable location for a new site.
“Ninety-nine times out of a 100, dealerships are sympathetic,” Newman said. “We share the same interest — superior customer service — so there’s a built-in incentive for them to offer a place for us to install a reference site.”
Deere established a five-year “refresh” cycle to conduct routine checks and install critical new hardware at each site. Which is why last February, Newman packed his bags in Torrance, California, one of the most hospitable places on Earth, and headed to Antarctica, one of the least.
South for the Summer
Summer in Antarctica is roughly from late November till late March, and there are no flights in or out before or after that four-month window.
You have to get everything done in summer. And you should take ‘summer’ with a grain of salt because the high temperature is right around 0 degrees centigrade.”
Newman flew from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, and then from Amsterdam to Cape Town, South Africa.
“It was actually about 34 hours with layovers,”Newman said. “It’s not fun.”
Well, most of it was not fun. When Newman arrived in Cape Town, they didn’t tell him what kind of aircraft he was going to fly on.
“It could have been anything from an old Russian prop plane to a huge cargo plane,” Newman said.
Neither, as it turned out.
When he walked onto the tarmac, he realized he’d be flying on a Falcon 7X, a luxury business jet. “That was the most first-class flight I’ve ever had anywhere,” Newman said. “We usually fly ‘cattle class’ wherever we go.”
Newman landed on a solid-ice runway about three miles from the research station.
Visitors to Antarctica receive a booklet explaining what to expect and what to pack, which includes sunscreen, a hat, and cold-weather gear.
The only thing Newman lacked was a decent pair of winter boots because he’d lived in California for 29 years.
Surprisingly, Newman’s biggest surprise wasn’t the climate.
“There’s just ice and rock,” Newman said. “There’s no vegetation. No insects. No mammals. It literally looks like the surface of another planet. You see the pictures and you think you’re prepared, but when you stand there and look around, you begin to understand the true meaning of desolation.”
It’s weird because you can see the flat horizon in a couple directions from Troll and you can see the mountains behind, so you get the impression you’re at sea level. ”
During his week at Troll, Newman upgraded components in Deere’s reference site and ensured it was functioning properly.
The Troll research station is at 5,000 feet elevation, so at times Newman found himself unexpectedly out of breath.
“I got used to it, though, and I hiked up the mountain peak behind the base,” said Newman. “I wish I’d had more time to explore outside the base, but they have very strict regulations on movement outside certain areas.”
The research station’s buildings (built from large cargo containers), the food (meat and potatoes, but limited fresh vegetables), and the plumbing (the toilet, sink, and shower all have vacuum drains, like those on an airplane), and the circadian disruption (the sun never dipped below the horizon), weren’t ideal.
But Newman said if the opportunity came up, “I would certainly go again in a heartbeat.” And a Falcon 7.