Positioning technology on agricultural and construction machinery has become a standard, and accurate real-time kinematic (RTK) global navigation satellite system (GNSS) correction data has become a necessity for customers trying to reach peak efficiency in the field. Businesses like Butler Machinery have seen the benefits of providing those GNSS corrections to its customers.

precision agricultureImplementing a modern virtual reference station (VRS) network and creating a geodetic backbone for the Dakotas has allowed Butler Machinery – a third-generation, family-owned heavy machinery and agricultural equipment dealership serving North Dakota, South Dakota and Clay County, Minn. – to provide a more competitive offering to its customers and establish greater leadership in its market. 

Butler’s decision to develop a VRS network helped ensure consistent, precise positioning capability for all of its customers’ field users. The system covers all of North Dakota and the eastern half of South Dakota, and Butler Machinery’s customers are able to attain greater accuracy and a quicker initialization time making their work more efficient, more precise and more cost effective than before the establishment of the network. From pre-work through as-built, projects are completed over a period of time by different field personnel who are all using the same consistent and accurate positioning reference. But first, establishing the network took some work and collaboration with a variety of stakeholders.

The approach involved several discussions and resulted in a partnership with Frontier Precision, a Trimble reseller that provides survey, mapping systems and software, and building construction solutions. This partnership led to the joint-venture, MidStates VRS, which contributes its data from 16 of their CORS sites to the U.S. National Geodetic Survey (NGS) and makes its post-processing data available to the public.

Frontline support for MidStates VRS is provided by Butler’s precision agriculture group for farmers, Butler partner SITECH Dakotas for contractors, and Frontier Precision for surveyors and engineering firms.

Butler Machinery, through its SITECH Dakotas partnership, has experience with both local RTK single base station solutions and radio-based RTK arrays. The company decided on installing a VRS network to provide the efficiency gains customers require, while also being easy to maintain and administer, and it provides competitive subscriptions. This network offers a secured, commercially powered and continuously monitored site, eliminating the risk of field base theft. Some of the advantages of this technology include:

  • Common coordinate system, constrained to NAD83 2011 
  • Better GNSS position accuracy and repeatability over a wider area
  • No requirement for line-of-sight to RTK base station radio
  • Easy startup with fast initialization times
  • No need to manually switch to the nearest RTK base station, eliminating operator confusion and the need for a re-work if a wrong base was chosen
  • Cellular connectivity to enable other features like data transfer, fleet tracking and remote support

Steve Richter, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Frontier Precision, says, “Trimble’s VRS network solution improves accuracy and efficiency, especially in the Dakotas. Their products have evolved to become even easier to use, now with devices that are able to interface with a cellphone. The core GNSS technology is still there, but it also has continually developed along with our customers’ needs and how we do business.”

Getting the Network Running

Approximately six months after work began, the MidStates VRS network was up and running. The network is comprised of approximately 100 Trimble NetR9 GNSS reference receivers that provide 440 channels for multiple constellation tracking. The units have a rugged exterior and are field-tested for harsh environmental conditions. The NetR9s deliver GNSS positions from Trimble Zephyr Geodetic 3 antennas and are supported by Trimble’s Pivot software platform, connected via a dedicated communications backbone.

The MidStates VRS network dramatically improves the working accuracy and efficiency for local farming operations and construction projects, land surveyors, civil engineers and mappers in the Dakotas. Furthermore, the dealers have recognized another market with a need for very localized data: North Dakota’s Bakken region, where there are numerous oil drilling operations. Instead of requiring a user to set up a base station, they can now step out of their vehicle, connect their GNSS rover to the network via cellular connection and begin measuring points. The VRS network provides their reference station for accurate positions.

“By modernizing our solutions, our customers now experience a better morning,” says Alan Woytassek, senior technology specialist at Butler Machinery. “They jump into a machine and, because of their subscription to the GNSS receiver, they automatically receive RTK corrections in real-time from the VRS network. The RTK convergence time has been significantly decreased, allowing them to get to work faster. Additionally, the network works with all brands of GNSS receivers, providing a common solution for customers with mixed GNSS fleets.”

Using MidStates’ VRS service – a feature customers can opt-in for when purchasing their machinery – farmers can plant seeds near applied fertilizer and ensure they don’t overlap the application of seeds or fertilizers, reducing costs and increasing yields. 

According to Woytassek, another advantage to working with a VRS network is that all the data is on the same reference system. This aspect is especially meaningful for farmers working over large areas – there is no risk of a shift in AB lines from connecting to different RTK base stations. There is no longer a need to move base stations as work progresses, hardware requirements are reduced, time is saved and data is seamlessly calibrated.

Benefits for Construction and Roadwork 

In searching for a solution, one of the most important features that Butler Machinery wanted to offer customers was repeatability. Bartlett & West, an engineering firm, is one example. They saw a “...high confidence level of repeatability of the VRS system.” Repeatability assures that the data is consistent and accurate. Bartlett & West was also able to speed up field operations because of quick and easy setup time. As a result, the firm experienced a significant increase in efficiencies in longer-term and larger projects, which in turn, has saved the company and its clients time and money. 

Additionally, contractors can reduce passes when moving dirt, saving money, while carrying out higher-accuracy work with scrapers and dozers. This method reduces downtime when waiting for a blade. Contractors can also check the grade of a project to monitor progress, minimizing the amount of rework later.

Moving forward, Butler Machinery and Frontier Precision plan to continue hosting joint survey/contractor events to discuss project lifecycles and share their knowledge in using the VRS network to enhance productivity and budget guidelines. Ultimately, the reliability and scalability allowed Butler Machinery to develop a reliable VRS network that its customers can depend on to obtain accurate GNSS corrections quickly and at any time. It has also enabled MidStates to pursue other regions of the U.S., most recently expanding into Alaska.  

 “The repeatability, efficiency, and common-coordinate benefits of our Trimble VRS network are game-changers for our agriculture and construction customers,” says Chris Giese, technology manager at Butler Machinery. “This was uncharted territory for an equipment dealership, and the geotechnical knowledge we’ve gained supports our construction technology and equipment business. This has translated into our team understanding more about the entire lifecycle of a project.”