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Install your own auto-steer

OTTAWA — A farmer can download free software from the Internet and retrofit a tractor to set up his own do-it-yourself auto-steer system.

It’s been five years since the release of a free “open source” software program that allows farmers to build their own GPS tractor guidance and auto-steer systems at a cost far less than the proprietary systems sold by mainline manufacturers. And the technology continues to get easier for these do-it-yourselfers while supported by an active online community of farmers using the ‘AgOpenGPS’ program.

But it’s not simple. The farmer loads the free software on a laptop (or tablet) that can direct the tractor, as long as the farmer has had the wherewithal to take the tractor apart and install either a hydraulic system or mechanical gear system that can talk to the laptop (or tablet). The steering system must be connected to a GPS antenna on the tractor.

Farmers with electronic know-how are using the software to rig up even old tractors with auto steer for about $1,500 to $2,000 — about one tenth of the cost of proprietary systems and without the annual subscription fees. They download the program for free (off the Internet) and run it on a standard Windows tablet mounted in the cab. The program turns the tablet into a GPS monitor, allowing the tablet to link with a small tractor-mounted GPS receiver and other inexpensive components that can be purchased online. The system also relies on at least one GPS base station — a separate $1,100 antenna and electronic box the size of a toaster mounted elsewhere on the farm — to improve the tractor’s self-steering accuracy down to the one-inch level.

Depending on the tractor model, the system steers the machine by way of computer controlled valves added to the tractor’s hydraulic steering system. Or the farmer can go the mechanical route with a computer-controlled gear and motor set-up added to the steering column.

Reinhard Van Loocke, an organic crop farmer in Oxford County, said he used his brother-in-law’s 3D-printer to make a hard plastic gear for his tractor’s steering column. He downloaded blueprints for the gear from a German user he found online.

It worked so well at keeping the tractor in a straight line as he seeded this past spring, Van Loocke plans on adding the technology to a second tractor and a combine next year. He estimates that a proprietary system with base station would have cost him about $20,000 plus about $1,100 in annual subscription fees for a base station.

He cautions, however, that the farmer must invest personal time to assemble and sort out the system. That can be part of the attraction for those farmers with a penchant for hobbyist tweaking. But this would be a nightmare for a farmer not technically inclined or computer savvy. “If you didn’t have an affinity for electronics, you would probably give up on this,” says Van Loocke, who holds a degree in electro-mechanical engineering.

But for the right farmer, “it’s the coolest thing ever.”

“It gets very addictive when you start into this,” UK-based farmer Joe Seels says in an October 2022 YouTube video detailing his two retrofitted John Deere tractors. “The possibilities are pretty much endless to keep adding new features.”

Later versions of the software also incorporate Google Maps satellite imagery, overlaid on the field mapping.

Beyond the fun of making your own system at a budget price, the system delivers the standard benefit of precision steering, allowing the operator to avoid costly overlap when seeding or applying fertilizer and other crop inputs.

Source : Farmersforum

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