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Land-leveling system with improved tech

Trimble advances land-leveling GPS-based system

As more farmland is leveled across the Mid-South, what are the new technologies being used to accomplish the task? Delta Farm Press recently spoke with Trimble’s Josh Shuler about what the company brings to the table.

“The single most important point for dirt movers is ‘up-time.’  How many productive hours can I get out of today? Every minute they’re sitting still is bleeding money from their bottom-line.”

On the history of the company…

“In 2000, Trimble purchased the Spectra Positioning Group of Dayton, Ohio, and acquired the market leader in laser-based technologies.  Originally, known as LaserPlane, they invented the laser leveling business back in the 1960s and have remained the dominant supplier of pretty much any grade-based market ever since.

“Back in the early 2000s, Trimble began moving to GPS for land-leveling to allow for greater flexibility and increase our customers’ overall efficiency. Lasers do really well on nice, calm days when the temperature changes are slow moving and there isn’t a lot of wind or dust and distance isn’t a challenge. If you’re working a large or multi-faceted project you may have to run multiple laser transmitters at once or move your lone transmitter frequently to cover the jobsite. Lasers also require calibration several times a day to fully compensate for the changing conditions. Each time the system is moved or worked on the entire crew is sitting still.

GPS enters…

“When GPS came on the scene, it gave us a chance to set up a single base station in the middle of the job and achieve very comparable performance. The technology immediately allowed the market to evolve from a strictly land-leveling, or planar, model into a full 3D landforming model.

“Landforming gives us the ability to sculpt the land and lower the overall yardage requirements in several key parts of dirt moving that hadn’t been possible until GPS. Laser based systems simply can’t compete with the flexibility and efficiency enhancements offered by GPS, especially on larger scale jobs with lots of intricate design details.

GPS challenges…

“Roughly eight years ago the industry began running into challenges in several regions around the world where intermittent error and variability in the vertical accuracy of GPS began to occur.  It went beyond the normal boundaries of maximum vertical error that the industry had enjoyed for several years.

“The most frustrating part of these occurrences was that they were often seen at very random times. Some areas found the variability was somewhat predictable and would occur at similar times each day. The downtime could be a few seconds one day and several hours the next.  However, the magnitude of the variability was always a guessing game … until VerticalPoint RTK.”

Finding a solution…

“Vertical accuracy is the single biggest measuring tape that we are held up against in the dirt moving market. As soon as the field gets its first rain ‘everyone’ can see if the dirt mover has done a good job or if some rework is in order.

“Trimble is best known as a GPS company and the inventor of RTK differential corrections. Over the last five years,

I have led a team of engineers and field personnel dedicated to understanding the cause of the variable error. Trimble has invested an enormous amount of time and resources into understanding the root cause of the error and finding a cost-effective method to eliminate as much variability as possible. VerticalPoint RTK is the next-generation in differential correction technology that came from that effort.

“Once the error was understood, we first began work to find the most effective way to eliminate as near to 100 percent as possible. We tried many approaches -- including the single offset solution pursued by others in the industry -- and found that it was highly ineffective in larger fields and in periods when the variability of the error was dramatically different between machines only a few hundred feet apart. It didn’t take long for us to realize that approach was not a robust solution and was abandoned.

“The next method that we tested turned out to be the one that ultimately became the patent-pending foundation of VerticalPoint RTK. We found that it was absolutely mandatory for us to provide a rapid, dynamic, and real-time offset correction at the tractor level to have any real chance at keeping up with the ever changing error in the field at any given time. It is also the only way to make sure that every tractor is able to apply the best answer for its current location and keep our results consistent from tractor to tractor all day long. Applying a single correction across the jobsite for all tractors is doomed to apply an offset to one tractor that is not real and exacerbate the existing problem.”

On providing flexibility…

“A single correction source also gives the user zero flexibility to scale to the size of a job. If it’s a small job on a good day it may work ok, but as you scale up the size of the job, the variability of the error, and the time period of completion … a single correction source simply isn’t viable. It definitely has no chance of meeting its claimed accuracy and up-time improvements all season long.

“The technology driving VerticalPoint RTK allows us the ability to build an array of supplemental rovers that in-turn feed error information to each tractor on the crew independent of the rest. It also allows us to scale the array to the size of job and more importantly, to the magnitude of error variability being seen.

“The VerticalPoint RTK array consists of the customers existing mobile base station to which are added, most commonly two, but up to four supplemental rovers to create a good, solid array. The more robust your array, the less chance of possible downtown or variability that we cannot capture and deal with. A user can always start with one and add additional supplemental rovers as the need arises or the size of their jobs increase.

“All of our research has proven that the most valuable part that VerticalPoint RTK plays is in giving us the ability to provide dynamically real-time information to each tractor so that they can determine the best answer for where they are when they need it. The error can happen very rapidly, even sub-second, so a real-time link is crucial.

“Multiple crews can join together and use the system. There is no limit to the number of tractors that can work within a single array. A lot of crews in the Delta will run some jobs independent and then team up for larger ones. Pooling the supplemental rovers into a larger array only strengthens it and further reduces the possibility of any appreciable error being seen by any tractor within the array.”

Points, questions…

“One thing that needs to be made clear: we make no guarantees of there being 100 percent up-time. That just wouldn’t be an honest approach and Trimble wants to make sure that our customers know they can count on the facts from us.

“We launched the VerticalPoint RTK solution into North America and Australia last December after a season long pilot program on both continents last April through December. Right now, those are the only two regions we currently service, but this is a global market and we’ll definitely expand.

“Globally, it’s typical to see only about 75 to 80 percent uptime during a season. In certain parts of the world, they’re seeing four or five hours per day of downtime. We held off releasing the VerticalPoint RTK solution until it was tried and tested before releasing it through our Vantage Partner channel.”

Typical questions regarding the system include “Why do you have to put so much equipment in the field?

“My answer: Yes, it’s more equipment, but is the 10 minutes spent setting up equipment while machines are warming up and greasing is done, in exchange for getting those hours of downtime back worth it? 

“Anyone who has used the technology through a period when the majority of their crew who didn’t have it were sitting while the VerticalPoint RTK system continue to work can attest … it's absolutely worth it. Ninety-five percent-plus uptime makes a huge difference to an operator’s bottom-line.

“We’ve put together an extensive ROI calculator for anyone who is serious about understanding their bottom line.  It walks them through the real cost of downtime. Everything from determining the cost of an hour idling versus working to the price of the lost opportunity stemming from delays in getting a job done because of downtime or rework.”

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