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Mobile solutions for the field and farm


November 30, 1999
By John Dietz

Mac, Windows, BlackBerry, Android: the choices are wide, not to mention confusing. For growers wanting to go beyond basic cellphone service in the field and getting hooked up to the Internet, there are some exciting technologies to choose from. However, depending on a grower’s particular location, choices may be limited to the operating systems that are supported by local cell service providers. 

In 2008, Delta Ag integrated a BlackBerry smartphone and laptop with wireless communication in one of its trucks. It has become a “totally digital” office with high-speed Internet for Delta Ag Services co-founders Doug Pryor and Barry Friesen at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. “We e-mail field scouting reports to growers from the truck. A big portion of them get it on their BlackBerry, read it, and deal with it in the tractor,” Pryor says.

This approach with a smartphone for the farm will probably cost more than the current cellphone service, but it also opens the opportunity for a huge boost in productivity and efficiency. Digital cellular networks, through a smartphone, provide access to wireless high-speed Internet. Once the smartphone is online, it can be “tethered” or tied to a portable computer to extend the linkage in the field. Digital cellular is available in many areas, and data transfer rates can be very fast.

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There is one catch, however: most farms in Western Canada have only one or two cellular service providers, limiting choice and competitiveness. In rural Manitoba, for example, during the fall of 2009, that provider was MTS Allstream Inc. (MTS), whose wireless network covered more than 97 percent of Manitoba’s population.

Pryor advises clients to start by learning which servers are providing digital cellular service in an area, then asking which wireless products are available. MTS retails and supports two smartphone brands, BlackBerry and the newer HTC Android, as well as the HP mini-notebook computer.

Apple’s products, such as iPhone and iPad, at $550 to $750, cannot compete in most Manitoba farming areas because of network limitations, although they may be strong competitors in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Apple products require support from the Apple operating system and from an HSPA network provided by companies such as Rogers and Telus.

However, by the end of 2010, MTS and Rogers had announced that they planned to complete the expansion of the HSPA network across Manitoba. It will essentially enable rural use of the iPhone or iPad starting in 2011. “The iPhone has some unique features which may make it better than the BlackBerry, but it’s not compatible at this time with the network giving us our service,” Pryor says.

Pryor estimates half of his farm managers already use the BlackBerry smartphone. As well, many are online with a computer in the pickup. “They’ve got their information instantaneously,” he says.” They can manage it better because it’s right there, on the phone, in front of them. Text messaging is fast becoming the norm for information transfer. If clients want to know something, they need a rate on something, they tell me to send it in a text message. They don’t have to try to remember, they don’t have to write it down. They just flip back (through messages), and it’s right there.”

Whatever is sent on the mobile network also goes into the farm office computer as e-mail. The messages are in two places; the business is backed up, safe and filed.

A wide array of applications gives more functionality to the BlackBerry smartphone. Specialized applications are being supplied by third-party developers. Until recently, BlackBerry focused on business use and had very
few applications.

The Android operating system, released by Google in 2007, is tailored for applications. Android smartphones have overtaken BlackBerry in US sales. Many Android phones also are factory-loaded for GPS navigation.

The iPhone, released a few months before Android, clearly leads the market in applications. More than 200,000 “apps” have been approved by Apple. Many apps are underway for the iPad, as well.

To narrow the choices, also consider the compatibility of the operating system across all farm software applications. There are only a few operating systems for computers, and nearly all farm software uses the Windows operating system.

Some farm software use a Windows Mobile platform. It can run on a handheld device in the field. Windows Mobile is popular on rugged outdoor computers provided by companies like Panasonic and Trimble, on smartphones, and even on smaller netbooks with 10-inch screens

Some clients are more inclined to a traditional cellphone and are open to a hand-held device for finding more information and recording data in the field. It could be an iPad, but that is only one of many choices from many manufacturers.

Tablet side
The iPad has other uses in the truck, even if cellular network services are not available in a specific area. It will function in the field as a tablet computer, as a music player, as storage for addresses, photos and software from Apple. It can provide GPS-based guidance on streets and highways and map the way to a machinery dealer. The iPad needs clean fingers, however, because the touchscreen cannot respond to a stylus or non-conducting gloves.

Several tablet computers provide alternatives to the iPad. The tablet display is a little smaller than a laptop, but larger than a netbook. Tablet computers range from less than $500 to more than $3000 for sealed, rugged versions.

According to Pryor, his farm clients find netbooks make the best investment right now. Typical netbook computers have a 10-inch screen and a price tagged at $250 to $400. There is a full keyboard and a glide pad for navigation.

If clients subscribe to a cellular network, the netbook and smartphone can be “tethered” together. This will provide the netbook with high-speed wireless Internet. “We bought a couple netbooks for our soil sampling trucks,” Pryor says. “The netbook lets guys do basically whatever they want: e-mail, messaging, Internet. The majority will record field operations or monitor irrigation systems. It’s a good unit for collecting field elevations or for running prescriptions. It can actually run the fertilizer applicator and tell it what to put where.”

Pryor believes that, at half the cost of an iPad, his clients will buy the netbook as a business tool and not worry. “If we spend $250 to $300 on a netbook and it only lasts a season before it gets full of dust or dirt and quits, we’re not out a whole lot. We can afford to replace them more frequently.”

Apps for scouting
Agri ImaGIS Technologies, based in Fargo, North Dakota, is now developing software for smartphones, notebooks and even the iPad. It has worldwide sales through www.satshot.com, and still operates as a family business. “We’re seeing farmers getting more smartphones. They run the Web through the phone. Lots have map storage and applications,” says Nathan Faleide, spokesperson and son of founder, Lanny Faleide. “Some new smartphones are in the order of 10 times more powerful than the controller in the tractor cab. Any tablet computer that uses an app could run all the controls of your tractor through your smartphone, in theory.”

Given time, he believes the tablet computer may become more powerful and be a better device than a notebook or netbook because of the built-in GPS, web connectivity and size. “We actually can run our program now on the iPad, and other tablets, through the web browsers. Anything with web connectivity can access our data and mapping program now. Everyone else is Windows-based and can’t run on the tablets, yet.” 

Agri ImaGIS is working on new apps for the field. For instance, Agri ImaGIS is getting ready to release a low-cost field scouting application for Android smartphones in the spring of 2011.

The new application will be able to bring up a field map or satellite photo of a field, pinpoint locations while in the field, then attach text, photos or perhaps voice messages to those GPS points. The digital field notes can be forwarded for consultation. Later versions are planned for Apple’s mobile operating system. “We’re doing lots of work with mobile devices. They’re powerful, and they’re in everybody’s hands,” Faleide says.

Things are changing quickly. At press time, Faleide added, “Until now, AT&T didn’t cover much of the US Midwest. Now with its acquisition of Alltel, the iPhone and iPad connectivity will come to most ag areas. In the coming months, and almost everywhere in the Midwest, service will be available soon for either Android or Apple phones.”


Apple’s tree
The iPad hangs on a branch of the technology tree that Apple planted in 1992 with the first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) devices. Products on one branch now include any mobile computer, from lightweight hand-held netbooks, to tablets, to larger notebook or laptop computers.

Smartphones are on another branch. Big names in this short story include Nokia, Research In Motion (RIM) and, of course, Apple. Nokia spawned the smartphone category in 1996 by putting full PDA functionality into the mobile phone.

BlackBerry, released in 2002 by RIM, became the first smartphone for business. The BlackBerry converged technology for mobile telephone service, text messaging, always-on “push” e-mail, Internet faxing, web browsing and more.