OnStar For Farm Machinery

Hard on the heels of global positioning, auto-steer and variable rate application technology comes the next step in precision farming: telemetries. Simply put, telemetry enables a farm manager to remotely monitor and manage powered agricultural equipment.

Over the next couple of years, all the major agricultural equipment manufactures as well as a host of after market electronics firms plan to introduce communications systems that promise to improve agricultural machine efficiency, reduce equipment downtime, and improve maintenance practices.

OnStar is perhaps the best-known telemetry system. For a monthly fee, OnStar equipped vehicles are monitored from a remote location. If the vehicle is in an accident, sensors embedded in the car will notify an attendant at the remote service centre through a satellite uplink of the accident. The automatic signal includes information from the on board GPS receiver, which allows the OnStar service centre to pinpoint the accident scene so the nearest emergency services centre can be notified.

Every month OnStar operators remotely unlock the doors of over 60,000 vehicles after the owner calls the toll-free phone number to report the keys are locked in the car.

OnStar also remotely monitors the diagnostics systems on vehicles. It sends a monthly report to the vehicle owner of any mechanical issues recorded on the car’s onboard computer and notifies the owner of any required maintenance.

Telemetry systems for farm equipment will provide owners with vital information about a machine’s performance. LOFA Industries of Roswell, Georgia, is a leading-edge technology firm that developed the CANplus Messenger system for the transportation and industrial engine market. Irrigation farmers in the U. S. are now using the system. Bob Burak, LOFA national distribution manager, says “irrigation farmers may have an isolated power unit running an irrigation pump. Instead of having to travel to check on the pump, the power unit can be monitored from the farm office through the use of CANplus Messenger. Messenger uses either a cell phone or satellite link to deliver engine data to a website the grower accesses to monitor the engine.

“The grower chooses how often he wants the information updated, be it hourly, daily, weekly, or even monthly. Information includes engine RPM, engine operating temperature, oil consumption, and exhaust emissions. By monitoring these readings over time, the farmer can tell if maintenance is required or if an engine problem is developing. This gives the farmer the opportunity to correct a minor problem before the engine fails and expensive repairs are needed.”

CANplus Messenger also monitors fuel levels and can alert the farmer via email, text, or voice message when refueling is needed. Alerts also warn the farmer if the engine unexpectedly shuts down.

CANplus Messenger connects easily to most modern engines through the engine’s CANbus connection, Burak says. Hardware costs for the Messenger system is around US$1,000 and monthly fees start at about US$25 for information delivered by cell phone. Satellite transmission is more expensive.


John Deere was the first OEM to introduce telemetry to the agricultural market back in late 2002. JDLink uses a communications controller, a cellular antenna and a GPS package to deliver tractor operating information to a website that can be accessed from any computer.

This information includes a status and location report, which shows where the tractor is and if it’s operating, idling or in transport. It also shows engine hours and fuel level. The summary report breaks the engine hour reading down into working hours, idling hours, fuel use, average ground speed, and average per cent engine load. There is also an alert log report, which lists all engine warnings and the corresponding alert codes. If a stop engine warning occurs, JDLink instantly emails that warning to the farm office. Finally, there is a maintenance log, which reports on service performed.

Christen Cartmell, John Deere AMS specialist, says the original JDLink Machine Messenger system was replaced on April 3, 2009 with two updated versions. JDLink Select is a basic, universal system that works with most modern diesel engines. JDLink Ultimate is a CANbus system especially designed for the 6030, 7030, 8030 and 9030 series of John Deere tractors as well as the 7000 series forage harvesters. Costs of JDLink have dropped from $2,500 for the original Machine Messenger system to about $1,000 for the new JDLink Select. As with all other telemetry systems, there is a monthly monitoring charge that varies depending upon the plan the farmer chooses.

On March 16, 2009, AGCO announced a multiyear agreement with Topcon Positioning Systems of California to be the sole provider of advanced telemetries in AGCO equipment. AGCO, under the trade name Agconnect, will use the Topcon Tierra system to deliver machine operating information to a web

portal. What makes the Topcon system unique is it provides two-way information flows. Not only will information flow from the machine to the remote office, but information inputted in the office computer will be delivered to the machine operator. It can also deliver information between equipment, thus allowing better coordination between tender trucks and application equipment for example. Beta testing of Agconnect is underway and AGCO hopes to have the system available for purchase in 12 to 18 months.

New Holland is also working on a telemetry system for its tractors.

Trimble has a telemetry system for the heavy equipment and construction industries and is very close to introducing an agricultural version. Besides engine monitoring, the Trimble Agricultural Manager system can geo-fence the designated work areas to insure the machine is operating in the correct location. It is designed to manage large fleets of equipment with a single system.


While current telemetry systems will provide the most value to farmers with a number of tractors spread over a large geographical area, the proactive engine monitoring can reduce the risk of a major downtime event for the farmer who only owns one tractor. It can also pay big dividends for farmers who use hired labour to run their equipment. These operators may not be as attentive to the operation and maintenance of the machine as the farmer himself would be.

GPS and autosteer gave us smart equipment that could basically drive itself. Telemetries have given these smart machines a voice to talk to a remote office and to other machines.

Telemetries enable the military to fly unmanned drones remotely and NASA to fly unmanned spacecraft and probes. Now telemetry is bringing agriculture one step closer to a remotely operated agricultural tractor.

Gerald Pilger farms near Ohaton, Alta.

About the author

Gerald Pilger's recent articles



Stories from our other publications