Cutting costs with autopilot: the IMC case

The PPP application issues have always been diverse. They oftentimes happen due to a simple lack of necessary operating equipment but sometimes – among precise farming enthusiasts – due to the lack of autopilot systems. These systems determine the level of crop trampling with sprayer wheels, overlaps, and gaps. It especially concerns trailed sprayers because self-propelled machinery is most often natively equipped with the necessary guidance system or autopilot. Bohdan Kryvitskyi, the IMC agribusiness’s deputy CEO for innovations, explains what steps to take if there is no opportunity to purchase new equipment but there is a desire to improve crop cultivation quality.

Business specifics

Most agribusinesses in Ukraine possess and utilize a mixed fleet of machinery of different ages, mileage, and trim levels, and that machinery is manufactured by different brands. Agribusinesses often lack the opportunity to renovate their vehicle fleets but are forced to use what they have. At the same time, they may have several units of high-class machinery in their fleet, say sprayers. In that case, these farm’s fields are in clear contrast with each other: areas, where new modern machinery was used, can be clearly seen with almost perfect PPP application without trampling, gaps, or overlaps in contrast to areas cultivated with old machinery units allowing flaws in work.

trampling formation diagram

In addition to outdated machinery issue, agrarians constantly face another problem while applying PPPs – the lack of spraying quality control. Because many agrarians do not have machinery capable of tying the applied amount of agrichemicals to the GPS coordinates, they cannot track gaps, overlaps, or the PPP amount poured out on the field. Moreover, the spraying sections have to shut down on overlaps not to exceed the application rate and not to harm plants.

All these measures are taken to minimize crop losses. Man cannot influence weather which is one of the factors of a successful planting season, but agrarians are actually obliged to avoid mistakes implementing a certain cultivation technique. Technological conditions should not be violated.

Seeing and comprehending the difference between old and modern equipment, the agribusiness manager comes to the logical conclusion sooner or later: it is necessary either to reequip the outdated machinery fleet or to try and replace it with modern vehicles.

The autopilot system with RTK, prescription map, and automatic section control system are the main elements necessary for the successful PPP application. By our own experience, we are convinced that precision farming significantly reduces the risks of crop loss even at the earliest stages of its implementation.

Step one. Trampling analysis

We were monitoring corn fields using drones and found out that a significant amount of crops had been trampled. Therefore, we decided to carry out a detailed analysis and calculate the area the sprayer tramples during PPP application procedures, determine crop losses, and calculate financial losses. As the sprayer was manually controlled, a large area of crops was trampled. Consequently, we went to the fields and flew a drone to get an orthophotomap. We processed the orthophotomap, received from the drone, using the DroneDeploy software which allowed us to obtain images/maps clearly showing tracks that remain after the sprayer passes across the field.

 Orthophotomap

Orthophotomap, generated in the DroneDeploy application. Blue lines stand for tracks from the sprayer. Photo courtesy of IMC

To calculate the harvest loss caused by a certain sprayer, we carried out several tests: we used various sprayers, went into fields during the day and at night, and treated different crops (corn and sunflower).

After some “practical research”, we resorted to mathematics. Having multiplied the trampled track length by its width, we obtained the total trampled area for each field. On average, our calculations showed that the sprayer trampled 1.3% of all areas. If we represent these figures in monetary terms, our company lost $12 per every hectare, and it owns thousands of cultivated hectares!

Trampling-related losses Trampling-related losses analysis results

As the conducted analysis shows, manual control sprayers negatively affect the quality of technological operations. As a result of the trampling, a large number of plants are lost, and that surely affects the season harvest results. Consequently, it is necessary to discontinue using obsolete models of technological operations, modernize or upgrade the machinery fleet, and implement precise farming techniques.

The IMC professionals skillfully utilize the data received from satellite monitoring systems and using drones. It has become possible to obtain the presented calculations exclusively by using orthophotomaps since they allow calculating the exact areas of plots trampled by the sprayer. Drone video monitoring allows revealing the problem areas while the data obtained using DroneDeploy, the orthophotomaps, and NDVI maps processed in this cloud service allow obtaining accurate calculations,

explains Vadym Ostapenko, a SmartFarming specialist

Step two. RTK stations setup

In 2017, the IMC Company purchased 7 RTK stations – now all of our fields are covered with a high-precision correction signal. Now, when parallel driving is implemented, the accuracy becomes higher and higher with every machinery passage.

Last year, we used a relatively cheap signal: the accuracy of sawing grew by 15 cm with every passage. Industrial crops, especially corn, need a quality and stable guess row spacing because discrepancies considerably complicate threshing.

This year, the sowing accuracy has reached 2 to 4 cm. The navigation line, using which the sowing was conducted, can be utilized for an unlimited period of time and for various technological operations, for example, local fertilizer and PPP application, sowing in subsequent seasons, or even as part of Controlled Traffic Farming in the future.

The basic RTK stations are used to correct the satellite signal. At the same time, the base station exact positioning is taken into account, and then, the signal correction is relayed to the receiver installed on the machinery.

The signal correction occurs in real time, ensuring constant centimeter-precise accuracy for machinery positioning. The RTK station ensures about 2 cm accuracy with each subsequent machinery passage.

For example, according to the farm technological map, the corn plant spacing should be 70 cm. A tractor with a self-driving system which operates using a free signal is able to ensure the guess row spacing with an accuracy of about 15 to 20 cm. However, using the RTK correction, it is possible to achieve almost perfect row spacing being within 2 to 4 cm margin.

When applied, the RTK station ensures the greatest economic efficiency, providing the maximum precision of technological operations, overlaps and gaps avoidance, and enhanced cultivation of fields with complex geometry. All this is achieved in real time.

Moreover, when an agribusiness implements zero or minimum cultivation technology, RTK accuracy cannot be anyhow replaced,

says Dmitry Chernega, SmartFarming executive director

Step three. Sprayer re-equipment

It goes without saying that the ideal solution to the abovementioned problems with sprayers is to purchase modern self-propelled machinery units. Now, we are moving in that direction. The issue is that it is very hard to replace the existing fleet of trailed sprayers with new self-propelled ones all at once. It will cost about $5,000 to reequip a trailed sprayer and $370,000 will be spent to buy a new self-propelled sprayer. Furthermore, re-equipping all of our existing trailed sprayers, we can continue using them. On our sprayers, we will install Hexagon systems. They include a guidance system, a mapping system, a controlled PPP and fertilizer application system, and an automatic section control system.

Hexagon Ti5Hexagon Ti5 onboard terminal

However, in any case, these changes are not done quickly, and it is necessary to put the re-equipment issue right with the farm management. The same applies to the RTK station network acquisition. It is necessary to provide a comprehensive estimate projecting risks and specific anticipated economic benefits of innovations implemented. To achieve this, we decided to carry out a trial re-equipment. We turned to the FRENDT Company for help because their services price and task performance fully satisfied us.

Trampling, overlaps, and gaps are sources of major concern for agronomists, which cost them a pretty penny. If one takes a sprayer with a tire of 320 mm, the technical track can grow threefold by the end of the growing season. It is difficult for a tractor driver to get precisely into the spacing, and the wheel track shifts left and right damaging the plants as a consequence.

Besides, production standards are not observed. For example, the first PPP application operation starts from the left field edge while the second one starts from the right. The length of the spray boom is 18 meters, and the width of the field is 66 meters as an example.

Consequently, the sprayer passes 18 meter wide segments three times and the fourth passage (on the right field edge) is 12 meters wide. The next PPP application operation starts from the right field edge, but the tractor wheels pass not on the track made during the first operation, as the first passage is done with 18-meter wide sprayer boom instead of 12-meter one. As a result of the second operation, trampled tracks are displaced 6 meters to the right from the ones formed during the first operation.

We offer our Clients a solution to this problem installing the Hexagon autopilot on their machinery. It is affordable and easy to use. Comparing the PPP application efficiency before and after autopilot installation and parallel driving implementation, the machinery re-equipment allowed avoiding plant trampling and saving 6 to 10% of pesticides amount. Depending on the crop, it is possible to calculate the area of the trampled plants and, consequently, the lost profit before the end of the year,

says Vitaliy Shuberanskiy, the FRENDT Company’s founder

To start with, we will equip only 2 of our 13 trailed sprayers with necessary gadgets and software. We’ll see what will come of it, record the results, and provide the IMC management with the justification for a purchase.

Additionally, we plan to install the Auto Trac Row Sense system on the John Deere machinery. The system sensors and cameras estimate the distances from the wheel to the plants on both sides, and this way, they “drive” the tractor between the rows. We anticipate this re-equipment to pay off during a season.

The table below shows compared possible risks when technological operations using the old techniques (before parallel driving implementation) and parallel driving are utilized.

 cutting costs with autopilot: the IMC case

Approaching the crop trampling issue solution, we resort to the Pareto principle – we made 20% of the effort to get 80% of the result. Surely, in the future, we are still focused on obtaining new self-propelled sprayers. However, at this point, it is more profitable for us to reequip our old sprayers to get the immediate and best results right now,

summarizes Bohdan Kryvitskyi

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