The Latest Advancements in Safe Positioning Systems for Agricultural Robots

6 minute read

As the agricultural robotics industry continues to progress at a lightning-fast pace, it’s easy to forget that certain technologies have become decidedly old-school. Global positioning and navigation systems have been around for decades. Farmers have been using autosteer systems in tractors since the late 1990s.

With the rise of autonomous and driverless technologies, however, GNSS alone is no longer enough to guide machines where they need to go. The need for increased reliability, accuracy and assurance requires fully connected safe positioning systems.

Experts from JCA TechnologiesNovAtelSBG Systems and Septentrio share the state-of-the-art solutions that increase reliability, accuracy and assurance.

“Autonomous vehicles are different because you need a more holistic system,” says Darcy Cook, Vice President of Engineering and General Manager at JCA Technologies. “Safe positioning involves RTK GPS or GNSS, but it also involves integrating perception systems and vision systems with the guidance systems. This requires more sensors, and then, of course, you’re dealing with different use cases. Safety matters a lot, and it’s completely a different consideration with driverless systems than when you have people driving the machines.”

The experts at from JCA Technologies, NovAtel, SBG Systems and Septentrio have developed state-of-the-art safe positioning systems that are making a difference in agriculture today. Here’s an inside look at each one.

JCA Technologies combines autonomous technologies and precision control platforms

When JCA Technologies saw robotics manufacturers wasting resources trying to recreate tried and true innovations like autosteer, it decided to intervene. The result is an autonomous controls platform that transcends perception systems, integrating machine controls, task management, mission management, guidance, user interfaces and communications.

Autonomous Subsystems
Autonomous Subsystems, by JCA Technologies

“We saw people reinventing the wheel again and again,” Cook says. “Everybody’s trying to make the machine steer, so regardless of what kind of the machine and their application is, they all need to solve guidance, they all need to solve object detection. Our platform is basically all of these core technologies that allow our customers, who have unique ideas for machines, to build off of those and focus on the development that has to do with their uniqueness in their industry.”

Using a combination of products and innovations, including hardware, software libraries, and client-facing services from a dedicated engineering team, JCA Technologies is able to do two things: Lower the barrier of market entry for startups and provide access to top-quality tools across the board. As a result, everyone benefits from accurate and reliable safe positioning systems.

“Our framework consists of components in all these different areas, which can be used individually or as a whole,” Cook says. “One of our pieces is the world’s most advanced processing platform made for off-highway applications and agriculture environments in particular. It can run a lot of the advanced robotics systems and has inputs for cameras and LIDAR, as well as integrated GPS dual RTK GNSS systems and IMU used for positioning. It has all of the peripherals and all the processing capabilities that are typically needed for an autonomous system, integrated into one package.”

NovAtel uses sensor data to inform its precise positioning algorithm

NovAtel’s advanced GNSS software positioning engine mathematically considers all possible errors in the positioning solution and outputs this data as the protection level. The maximum error the system can tolerate is called the alert limit. Highly and fully autonomous equipment needs these parameters above and beyond the traditional high precision positioning in order to achieve the functional safety required to operate autonomously, making the most of a farmer’s field.

AI in the field

“Achieving safe positioning is the goal,” says Tanner Whitmire, director of sales and support for agriculture at Hexagon | NovAtel. “To move to a fully autonomous solution, we must advance our solution by continuing to fuse additional sensors while providing the ability to create precise positioning algorithms that will increase the position output’s safety rating and increase the availability of the position.”

Sensor fusion takes and combines data from different sensors on farm equipment and provides information to increase the availability of the positioning used for the machine’s environment and movement. It reduces the uncertainty of using the data from each sensor individually. SPAN® technology from NovAtel represents the fusion of NovAtel’s advanced precise positioning algorithms with sensors, such as inertial sensors and other vehicle information, to provide consistent positioning when satellite visibility is challenged or obstructed.Further sensor fusion advancement continues as the company adds sensor inputs like cameras, radar and other sensor data types.

SBG Systems democratizes access to high-performance navigation solutions

Nearly one year ago, SBG Systems introduced a solution that integrated all the necessary features for safe navigation in agriculture—and subsequently celebrated its most successful product launch in the company’s 14-year history. Ellipse filled an industry gap for precise, absolute positioning. The response from integrators and manufacturers for a wide range of applications was overwhelming.

Navigation System
Ellipse RTK GNSS Inertial Navigation System, by SGB Systems

“It was a paradigm shift,” says Laurent Le Thuaut, Senior Business Developer at SBG Systems. “This design is a major revolution in the ag market because we were able to democratize access to a high-performance product with advanced technology that came in a small package and at an affordable cost.”

Ellipse-D combines INS with an integrated RTK GNSS receiver for centimeter-level position accuracy. Now, farmers have uninterrupted navigation and can still do work, even when the GNSS signal is lost. This is thanks to the new multi-band and quad-constellation GNSS receiver coupled with a calibrated IMU.

The product provides Roll, Pitch, Heading, and Navigation data. A machine outfitted with Ellipse-D can input odometer and RTK corrections to further improve safe positioning over time.

Septentrio maximizes reliability and availability of GNSS through advanced multi-frequency tracking and positioning

When Septentrio encountered a signal jamming issue during one of its jobs in a marine environment, it prompted further investigation. The ship’s GNSS signal would go out at the same time every day, which indicated that this was not a problem with the satellite or the receivers.

robot

Instead, Septentrio discovered, an unsuspecting person unintentionally blocked the GNSS signal by transmitting another signal that disrupted GNSS reception. Soon after, this problem was spotted in the agriculture industry, too.

“The reason we saw this problem in ag was that people, even if they are not very close, can have an impact because the fields are open, so the jamming signal can penetrate further without obstructions,” says Jan Van Hees, Business Development Manager for Septentrio.

This revelation motivated Septentrio to create new technology that would be unaffected by signal jamming—unintentional or not. Enter AIM+ , Septentrio’s anti-jamming technology that powers all its receivers including the latest GNSS/INS system AsteRx-m3 and the module mosaic™, both multi-frequency, multi-constellation dual antenna GNSS receivers that can track all GNSS constellations (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou, NavIC, and QZSS) on one or two antennas, supporting current and future signals as they become available.

Not only do mosaic and AsteRx-m3 ensure improved signal reliability, they also increase position integrity. Septentrio’s advanced GNSS+ algorithms work to overcome common environmental challenges and not only provide the best possible position when but also accurate error estimates. The comprehensive receiver interface alerts operators or the steering application immediately if the machinery’s position is no longer accurate enough to safely complete the task at hand.

“Safety has a few aspects, and one part is accuracy, but the other part is integrity,” says Stef van der Loo, Market Access Manager for Septentrio. “Integrity has to do with reliability of the error messaging. There are many receivers on the market that claim to give very accurate positions, but how accurate is this positioning? That’s the big question.”

“You want to rely on your positioning so you need to know how good that positioning is,” he continues. “If there is a risk the position could be 50cm wrong, you don’t want to assume it is a maximum of only 5cm off. This could cause a serious risk for damage or safety. If you know the position error might be too big, if your position is too uncertain, you want to be able to go to a fail-safe mode, such as slowing down or interrupting critical activities. The error message needs to be very reliable. That’s the integrity part, and that’s what our system delivers.”

The future of safe positioning saves farmers time and money

While agriculture offers a fairly safe environment for operating autonomous vehicles compared to, say, a busy highway or construction site, safe positioning is necessary for minimizing crop damage and avoiding potential collisions. These state-of-the-art systems also provide peace of mind for farmers interested in replacing expensive, hard-to-find labor with precise, reliable machines. As technology manufacturers develop increasingly better systems, producers will do even more with less.

“There is a constant improvement on the signals GNSS receivers can use, as well as the elements that contribute to the error calculation,” says Van Hees. “Some applications, such as geofencing – making sure the machines don’t drive into the road – require accuracies of a meter with to be for instance 99.9999 percent certainty. That’s not too difficult. We are working to get that smaller, which will be a big benefit if you have multiple machines running, or you have people and machines working at the same time.”


Research from the Global Organisation for Agricultural Robotics

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