Tt’s not unusual to see a prairie farmyard with mainly green implements, and then combines in other colours contrasting with the other machines.
The farmer with the mismatched combines is probably cursing because he can’t get his favourite combine GPS to communicate with his trusty Greenstar Starfire.
That’s the situation in which Johannes Heupel was mired in 2013. Heupel, who farms 6,000 acres at Stony Plain, Alta., runs mainly Deere equipment. But he prefers Claas combines.
An electronics engineer and computer programmer by trade, Heupel studied the compatibility question and decided he could make the Deere GPS guidance work properly on his German combines.
It took some work, but he did make it happen. In stage one, he built a bridge so his Claas Lexion could run with his Deere 2630 monitor with JD GPS for autosteer and create yield and moisture maps.
“Basically, I wanted to keep the same John Deere format for all my guidance systems, the same boundaries and the same AB lines. I looked at the CANbus and figured it should be possible to make the two systems compatible,” Heupel said.
The result of his efforts was a new company called Agra-GPS, which offers a JD-Bridge allowing non-Deere machines to work with Deere guidance. He calls the device FarmerGPS.
“I initially did this just for my own farm. In talking to Claas, they were very excited about it, so in 2015 we started selling FarmerGPS kits to Claas dealers, but for Claas combines only. They came right back to us and said now they needed the same thing for CAT, so we made it available for CAT.
“Then we added Fendt and Massey. We also have Versatile, which is very popular in this area, both the big articulated and the row-crop tractors. We currently have a demo on the Case Quadtrac and JCB tractors. Now more manufacturers are starting to place their machines here in our yard so we can develop bridges for them.”
Heupel explains that nearly everything electronic in the ag industry is communicated through CANbus, the same as in the auto industry. However, the messages transmitted are generally proprietary, as if they are totally different languages. He says it’s like Deere speaks Mandarin and Agco speaks Italian. That information is hidden in each corporation’s base code. In the human world, there are translators who can communicate between different languages. In ag electronics, it’s up to engineers like Heupel to become the translators.
“What I’ve done is figured out what the messages are in the different languages. In a CAT, there’s a command to steer left but in the Claas, there’s a different command to steer left, and of course yet another command for every other company. The core concept is always the same. The John Deere monitor tells CANbus that you’re a certain distance from the AB line and this is where I’m headed. It gets information from the gyro to find out where it thinks the tractor is heading.
“Within the bridge, we’ve created new steering lines so the information from the John Deere monitor can give the correct steering commands to your Claas combine or Versatile tractor or whatever machine you’re driving. The bridge creates communication between the two protocols and provides the non-Deere machine with full steering capacity.”
Some farmers say equipment makers can make it challenging to access proprietary codes so people like Heupel can’t do what they’re doing. Does he agree?
“I probably agree to that. But it seems everybody is doing it to some extent. A few are wide open. They use ISO standards, which are easier to control.”
Heubel says some of his FarmerGPS bridge kits are easy to install, such as the Claas, which has provisions for CANbus interface with other implements. It’s a matter of plugging into two connection points and then running the wire up to the roof.
Versatile still employs an analog-driven system, so there’s a bit more wiring. It can generally be installed within two hours.
“The Case Quadtrac, on the other hand, is a now 20 minute installation versus the old way of doing it. John Deere sold a kit so you had to replace the steering valves and steering controllers. That took a whole day and it cost the hourly rate for the service technician.”
Heupel says he was surprised that there’s been only positive response from the major manufacturers. FarmerGPS is now an official partner of Claas. Of about 600 units Heupel has sold to date, they have gone to every brand dealership including Deere.
“With the bridge, a farmer can buy a Lexion combine over a John Deere combine. So does that mean John Deere lost a combine sale? I don’t think so. I would argue that if a farmer bought Lexion over John Deere, it’s most likely not because of GPS. It’s because of the combine. But he stays with John Deere on data management. Apparently, John Deere has decided not to challenge my invention, not so far anyway.”
Heupel says farmers benefit when competing manufacturers are willing to co-operate like this, allowing systems to be swapped back and forth. But there is a concern when it comes to storing and accessing data.
“It’s my belief that these days, a lot of companies, John Deere included, are trying to collect data from farmers: what they seeded, what kind of yield they get, things like that. Everybody is offering ways for the farmer to store his data in the cloud.
“If I run a FarmerGPS bridge inside a Claas machine, what really happens is my data goes to the monitor and potentially to MyJohnDeere.com. I may be handing John Deere data from a lot of non-John Deere customers.”
The core kit Heupel sells is basically the same for every machine, but there are different adapters and different software. List price is US$3,300.