Smart Tractors Face Shut-Down by Solar Storm

Smart Tractors Face Shut-Down by Solar Storm

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In covering the struggle for a right to repair agricultural equipment, one common story or theme has been the decision by many farmers to ditch pricey but fickle late model “precision” agricultural equipment for “dumb(er)” models from the 1980s or 90s, before tractors, harvesters and other gear bristled with sensors, cellular modems and GPS navigation. (Matthew Gault’s story in Vice from 2020 describes this phenomenon well.)

One of the recurring themes in those stories is that farmers want equipment they can rely on and fix themselves when things break (as they often do). Manufacturers, for their part, are determined to lure farmers with impressive precision ag features, but then lock down their equipment in ways that frustrate simple repair and maintenance (and maximize recurring revenue).

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John Deere

Any series residential lawn tractors with Kohler or Briggs and Stratton engines.

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In other words: the cost of precision ag’s brilliant, tech-fueled features is brittleness. And that brittleness was on display again last week, when a series of coronal mass ejections from the sun sent waves of charged particles into earth’s atmosphere. The solar storm produced brilliant displays of the northern lights but also disrupted GPS satellite- and ground-based RTK wireless communications in Canada and many farming states in the northern U.S. The result: precision ag equipment that relies on those signals to navigate fields was hobbled.

In a text message and blog post to its customers on May 10th, Landmark Implements, a John Deere dealership serving Nebraska and Kansas, warned that “significant solar flare and space weather activity (is) currently affecting GPS and RTK networks.” Farmers were advised to “shut off RTK” and Deere’s Starfire GPS receivers to “eliminate the conflicting corrections that the machine is receiving from the base station due to the geomagnetic storm.”

The effects of the outage will likely be felt far into the planting season as farmers look to leverage GPS-enabled features on their equipment. “When you head back into these fields to side dress, spray, cultivate, harvest, etc. over the next several months, we expect that the rows won’t be where the AutoPath lines think they are,” Landmark wrote to its customers, referring to the John Deere GPS guidance tool.  “It is most likely going to be difficult—if not impossible—to make AutoPath work in these fields as the inaccuracy is most likely inconsistent.”

For farmers who just want to have equipment that works when they expect it will, the incident is more evidence of the many hidden costs of precision ag technology.

A man repairs a Deere lawnmower with an iFixit guide

More News

  • Deere’s precision ag monopoly faces challenges: Is Deere’s monopoly ever going to end? An article by Jason Koebler over at 404 Media says “maybe.” Koebler notes that a decade of warnings from farmers that John Deere, an iconic US manufacturer, has been “doing something else very American: Concentrating power, stripping away the ownership rights of people who buy their products, and adding a bevy of artificial, software-based repair restrictions that have effectively created a regime in which farmers can no longer fix their own tractors, combines, harvesters, and other agricultural equipment.” After years with little response to those complaints, however, things are starting to move: a class action lawsuit filed against Deere by farmers is moving through the courts, while the company’s practices face increased scrutiny from state legislators, the White House, and federal agencies.
  • New survey finds independent mechanics worried that OEMs are frustrating repairs: A recent survey of more than 400 car mechanics by the Auto Care Association reveals deep concerns among independent mechanics about how manufacturer repair restrictions are contributing to rising repair costs. In the survey, 84% of independent mechanics identified data access as being an “extremely important” or “very important” concern for their business. Mechanics also worry about how the constrained repair environment is driving up costs. Car insurance rates have risen by 21% over the past year, contributing 0.5% to overall inflation, while repair costs increased by 6.7%, with rising expenses for specialty tools and software needed for modern cars.
  • Connecticut’s right to repair efforts died: As part of a consumer protection bill, right-to-repair efforts in Connecticut failed as the legislative session ended for the state. The bill, focused on a broad spectrum of consumer rights issues, but was unable to move forward—ending with a procedural motion before anyone lawmakers could even vote on the issue.