Technology for Landing Aircraft Now Remotely Pilots Farm Equipment
By: Sheri Beam, Innovation Institute

The basestation for Novariant's autosteer farm equipment is shown as it controls a tractor in a field. Photo courtesy of Novariant. Imagine a technology originally developed to land a 737 now being used to steer tractors? Novel to say the least, as well as an innovative example of technology transfer.

Image Right: The basestation for Novariant's Autosteer GPS guidance system which is used to guide farming equipment such as the tractor shown in the background. Photo courtesy of Novariant.

In 1994, Novariant (formerly known as Integrinautics) of Menlo Park, Calif., was awarded a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contract from NASA Langley. In partnership with Stanford University, the firm planned to research and develop a "highly reliable navigations system for precision approach and landing, using navigation signals transmitted by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and similar signals transmitted by low-cost 'Integrity Beacons' on the ground."

Their STTR proposal also identified other potential applications, including ". . . automated agricultural and construction equipment." Which is just what they've done.

The original idea was based on work at Stanford University for NASA's Gravity Probe B, a relativity gyroscope experiment developed by NASA and Stanford for testing two unverified predictions of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. The experiment checked, very precisely, tiny changes in the direction of spin of four gyroscopes contained in an Earth satellite orbiting at 400-mile altitude directly over the Earth's poles. The Probe, which was launched in 2004, relied on GPS for precise orbit location and spacecraft attitude determination. Researchers at Stanford designed new high-performance attitude-determining hardware that used GPS signals.

The touch-screen controls for Novariant's autosteer farm equipment. Photo courtesy of Novariant. Image Left: The touch-screen controls for Novariant's Autosteer GPS guidance system installed in the cockpit of a farming tractor. Photo courtesy of Novariant.

At the Stanford GPS lab, the work with NASA triggered new thinking about a precision touchdown concept for aircraft, called the "Integrity Beacon Landing System." The fledging company, Novariant, was spun out of the Lab and submitted their proposal to NASA’s STTR program.

Developed in partnership with the Langley team and the FAA, the firm’s technology was the first to land a Boeing 737 with centimeter accurate Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS technology. It was also the first use of pseudolite infrastructure technology in aviation. The pseudolite technology uses a ground-based differential GPS receiver that transmits a signal like one from a GPS satellite and can be used for ranging. The 737 flight tests also marked the company’s initial development of a precision control system for vehicles.

By 1999, Novariant had launched a new division, AutoFarm, to develop those potential agricultural applications. Today, Novariant is being recognized by The Space Technology Hall of Fame for its RTK AutoSteer technology that delivers sub-inch accurate steering of farm equipment for field preparation, laying beds or listing, planting, cultivating and strip tillage.

NASA Langley's STTR Program Office will also receive a special commendation from The Space Technology Hall of Fame for its "innovative efforts which resulted in the selection of AutoFarm RTK AutoSteer for induction into the 2006 Space Technology Hall of Fame. . . in the successful development and commercialization of this technology is being recognized as an outstanding example of applying space technology for the betterment of life on Earth."

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